Sometimes the myth is greater than the man. I’m beginning to wonder if the adulation heaped on auteur Terrence Malick is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Sure, The Thin Red Line is a classic, and Badlands is pretty good, but there’s not a great deal more to show.
The divisive The Tree Of Life had an epic scope, encapsulating a much smaller, human story. If his latest, To The Wonder, had even half of its vision on show, this would be a much more bearable two hours. As it is, I’m not sure this even qualifies as a film, and it’s certainly stretching the first part of Malick’s ‘writer/director’ credit.
Seriously. Where are all the words? Yes, there are some outstandingly pretty pictures, with regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki excelling, particularly with ethereal imagery shot around Normandy’s Mont St Michel.
But really, at this length you have to give us something more. Ben Affleck, in personality bypass mode, barley utters a grunt as the thoroughly unlikable, emotionally vacant Neil, who inexplicably relocates his family from Paris to a total dump of a hick town in Oklahoma, largely populated by shuffling crack addicts, it would seem.
Olga Kurylenko, as his much put upon partner Marina, is a tiny bit more talkative, though mostly in via Malick’s beloved voice over, and yet she’s infinitely more annoying, skipping and twirling her way through the entire movie like a demented four-year-old on a sugar high. Apart from when she’s sad, then she’s prostrating herself at Affleck’s feet, or the dysfunctional couple follow each other through their barely furnished home, never quite crossing paths, in a bizarre game of cat and mouse that seems to suggest Malick wanted Affleck’s face in shot only once every 40 minutes or so. You have to wonder why they’re even together, and the obstinately distant glimpses we are allowed give us precious little insight.
It’s worth noting here that others fared worse. Michael Sheen, Jessica Chastain and Rachel Weisz all ended up jettisoned on the cutting room floor, along with, presumably, the plot.
There’s a fleeting and fairly incomprehensible cameo from Rachel McAdams as Affleck’s alternative love interest, Jane, which is difficult to place, thanks to the wafer thin plot and Malick’s insistence on skipping backwards and forwards at will. Or does Marina just come back? I found it hard to care.
Unlike Blue Valentine, the lack of script, or genuine chemistry between the central players, means we never give a flying hoot when and where events are supposed to be happening, and frankly give up trying to figure out a timeline.
Neil, Marina and Jane seem to be locked in an eternally daft do-si-do, never really looking each other in the eye, and barely making contact. It’s infuriating, and insanely dull. When the townsfolk are briefly encountered, they mumble incoherently then vanish like ghosts.
To add insult to injury, the outstanding Javier Bardem is inserted into this flimsy musing on the meaning of love and loss as a priest struggling with his own failing faith. These scenes offer fleeting moments of brilliance that could have gone much further, but are sadly and inexplicably sidelined, and then discarded altogether.
The same fate befalls a puzzling subplot that seemingly posits Affleck as a journalist/environmentalist/engineer (who cares?) investigating the affects of local construction work on the town’s water source. Perhaps this explains why they are all so gaunt, but this is equally hastily abandoned, as Malick appears to be as bored by this exploration as we are.
Arrogant, self-indulgent and hollow filmmaking at its worst, Malick seems incapable of producing anything worthy in the tight two-year turnaround between this and The Tree of Life. Time to mull things over for another decade or so. Yes the mud and water look pretty, as do the endless shots of billowing hair and, oddly, bisons grazing, but it all gets achingly repetitive and frankly not worth it pretty quickly.
Stephen A Russell