For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.
Terence Malick’s To The Wonder was not only my most anticipated film of the NZIFF, but maybe my most anticipated of the whole year. I was already a massive fan of the reclusive director, and after 2011’s The Tree of Life, which would sit very high among my favourite films of all time, I was understandably eager to see what was next.
It’s not surprising that there are a lot of similarities between To The Wonder and The Tree of Life, given that they were released just two years apart, uncharacteristically fast for Malick. The two works feel like they are designed to go hand in hand, as the look is almost identical, and they cover overlapping ground, albeit set 50 years or so apart*.
Where the core story of the previous film was about family dynamics, To The Wonder is primarily about the turbulent relationship between Marina (Olga Kurylenko in the performance of the year) and Neil (Ben Affleck). As per usual Malick shows almost no interest in conventional exposition, telling his story with imagery and peppering it with his signature disjointed narration. There’s no mistaking a Malick film, and for the most part To The Wonder is textbook stuff.
No one else has ever moved the camera like this, and it all feels so impossibly spontaneous, as if he simply wanders around beautiful locations with his cast and shoots whatever captures his eye. As a result, there’s always going to be a disconnect for some people. Why would he stop shooting his characters to watch someone pushing leaves around with a leaf blower? Because that’s what makes him Malick.
While always staggeringly beautiful, To The Wonder isn’t quite as successful with its story telling, at least not on the first viewing. While the central thread concerning Kurylenko and Affleck is very strong, fraying into deeper thematic territory in just the right places, a couple of significant side plots involving a fling between Affleck and Rachel McAdams, and particularly Javier Bardem’s spiritually aimless priest, don’t quite land.
Malick is known for shooting vast volumes of footage to shape his films, and stories abound about entire characters and subplots being removed completely, and that’s what Bardem’s character’s story feels like to me, the remnant of a larger story. The ghost of what the links would be are there, as Kurylenko wrestles with her faith throughout the film, but in the end Bardem is little more than a face for her struggle, and his own story only lingers in vague traces.
To The Wonder is certainly going to be a film that, like all of Malick’s work, I will return to several times. My gut feeling right now is that it’s one of his lesser efforts, but there’s still more here to chew on than the vast majority of films being made right now.
(*side note: nothing would make me happier than to see Malick continue this trend and make a family/relationship drama set 50 years into the future.)