To The Wonder
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachal MacAdams, Javier Bardem
Terrence Malick makes movies the way I would make movies. He uses long and flowing dreamlike camera movements with hushed, profound voice overs. He is notorious for just turning the camera on and waving it at his actors and letting them do whatever for hours on end until he gets the image he wants. It’s an exhausting way to make a movie.
Seeing The Thin Red Line in theatres as a teenager completely changed the concept I had of what a film can be. I enjoy most films, there are a very few that I cannot watch. I am not critical of plot or story or acting. For me to enjoy a film it must have a few basic standards.
First, it must have solid production value. For the most part this means large budget movies, production design is expensive but there are auteurs out there that can do a fantastic job of making you think they had a lot of money. Pi is a good example of this, low budget with a style that makes it all work. Ghost Rider is the exact opposite of this, large budget, awful production.
Second, it must have at least one character that I personally connect with. I can connect with all sorts of characters, even difficult ones. Tideland’s little girl comes from an experience totally foreign to me but I was able to share in her journey. The character experiences in Twilight are similarly foreign to me but they are presented in such a way that I could not empathize with any of them and found myself bored.
Third, its theme must not be overly cruel or mean. This rules out almost all horror with a few exceptions. The Saw movies are cruel but I find Jigsaw’s skewed “only the strong survive” morality to be intriguing. I have no interest in other torture porn type films like Hostel or Last House on the Left. I don’t mind gore and blood, Cabin in the Woods entertained the hell out of me. Cabin Fever bored me.
Fourth, it shouldn’t be dumb to be funny. The Big Lebowski currently sits at the top of my favorites list. It is funny and some of its characters do very stupid things but it is never dumb. Instead of placing a bodily fluid in a character’s hair it has characters duel verbosely about what men call their “johnsons.” I can laugh during movies like There’s Something About Mary or The Hangover but I will never watch them more than once.
So how does To The Wonder score? It hits #1 by default being directed by Malick and also makes #4 irrelevant. It is definitely does not have cruel or mean theme to it so #3 gets a pass. #2 though, that’s the killer.
I read a scathing review of Prometheus in which the reviewer called it “Toddlers in Space” because all of the characters were like overdramatic little children who didn’t have a mature reaction to anything. With that in mind I now refer to To The Wonder as Toddlers in Love.
Who are these people? Why do they do the things they do? They are beautiful to look at, they are in beautiful places, they have beautiful lives but what in the hell do they do with all that?
I honestly can’t remember if Affleck’s character even has any dialogue that is not narration. I think he tells a little girl “No” at some point but other than that he is just a silent observer. Maybe he is supposed to be the audience stand-in, the person whose eyes we are seeing everything filtered through, I am not sure, but I am sure that I know nothing about him, his motivation, his wants, his needs. How am I supposed to care about when a lover cheats on him if I am not entirely sure he even really likes her?
The French girl, oh the French girl. She is beautiful, she is exciting, she is absolutely insane. Her ten-year-old daughter has more quiet reserve and maturity. Malick spends half the movie looking at this French girl as she walks away from the camera. She walks away in a field, in a street, in a grocery store. She is spinning and laughing and crying and worrying but we are always ten paces behind, just letting her have at it.
I love watching the French girl (and later Cowgirl) walk away. It’s a poetic vision, the man (in our case Ben Affleck’s right shoulder) pursuing his love, his lust, his desires, seemingly just out of reach. How it could be a metaphor for life, how we are always striving to grasp what we truly want but we never really do. Okay, maybe I am reading a little too much into it but that’s what I have to do because Malick makes me do take that stroll behind the girl a seemingly endless amount of times. I remember the same scenes in Tree of Life and The New World. Man following girl. It’s a Malick trope at this point. To The Wonder takes it To The Max.
Suffice it to say I was disappointed. After the movie was over–without resolving any of the character’s story arcs in any meaningful way—my wife turned to me and said “HIS (Malick) MOVIES ARE EXHAUSTING.”
I have to agree. They are. The Thin Red Line is exhausting because it captures the terror those young men were going through, the horror of war and meaningless violence mixed with the absolute beauty of nature. The New World was exhausting because it was expansive exploratory look at how amazing and easy it is fall in love with the people and the land of a new world. The Tree of Life was exhausting because it was a new way to believe, to feel life around you, to understand people and the good and bad we all have. To The Wonder is exhausting because it is a deep and excruciating look at the love lives of toddlers, of people with no emotional maturity, no wisdom. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Malick is trying to say something profound about life and love. I can’t speak for the man, all I can speak for is what I brought to the viewing. I came prepared to be moved, awed, struck by beauty, and I was. What I did not expect was to be so aggravated and dismayed at the end.
Every story needs an end, some sort of resolution. Even when a story ends mid-sentence like Inception did, we, the audience are able to use the information we have to make a decision on how it ended for ourselves. To The Wonder does not give us any information to that end. We are left with a brief portrait of people who are so distant and detached that they, at least for me, come across as unreal and empty. That’s just not compelling and I hope as Malick continues to make his visual poems he finds a way to contain a story and not just gorgeous little vignettes.