Did we overrate Terrence Malick, or is he just regressing to the mean after The Tree of Life? Anyone who saw his Oscar-nominated cultural touchstone from two years ago will readily recognize the hallmarks of his style in his latest film, To the Wonder, which opens at the Modern this weekend: the low-angle shots that give people the appearance of demigods, the swirling camera movement, the golden sunlight that seems to sanctify everything it touches, the idealized women and angry and emotionally distant men, the tone of ennobled mysticism. If angels made movies about us, their movies would probably be a lot like Malick’s (either his or Béla Tarr’s).
Yet this isn’t always a good thing. The angel’s-eye point of view can get wearisome, creating an atmosphere so rarefied that you choke on it. At least I feel that way, although, admittedly, I am a fallen creature with base desires. Were I more angelic in nature, perhaps I could appreciate Malick’s films better. Or maybe To the Wonder simply isn’t very good.
The film begins with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French-speaking Ukrainian divorcée who has fallen hopelessly in love with Neil (Ben Affleck), an American environmental inspector. She’s so smitten that she packs up her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) and moves from Paris to Oklahoma to be with him, even though he won’t promise to marry her. When their relationship hits a bad patch, she moves back to Paris, and he takes up with an ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams).
This is more story than we often get from Malick, and it seems to have roots in his own autobiography. Yet the movie is annoyingly short on specifics. Early on, Tatiana asks her mom why she gets so sad, but the filmmaker clearly isn’t interested in the answer. Neil’s romances blossom and then wither, and then he marries Marina, and we’re given scant indication as to why. Supporting characters — the carpenter (Charles Baker) who has sex with Marina one afternoon, or an Italian friend (Romina Mondello) who sees Oklahoma as a wasteland — are parachuted in without introduction and then dispensed with just as unceremoniously. At some tangential remove from the romance plot is a priest (Javier Bardem) who ministers to the poor and sick and holds anguished, one-sided, Spanish-language conversations with his God, begging him to reveal his presence. So little does Malick care for any sort of narrative or emotional logic that his movie tips over into self-parody when he includes a wholly unexplained shot of a sea turtle swimming around a coral reef while Marina’s voiceover intones — in French and apropos of God knows what — “Who are we when we are there? Which is the truth?”
These characters hardly deserve to be called that, though Kurylenko’s role does at least allow this otherworldly beauty to crack a smile every so often, a refreshing change from the grim types she often plays in action thrillers like Quantum of Solace, Max Payne, and this week’s Oblivion. Instead of giving his actors stuff to do, Malick would rather study the topography of their beautiful faces with the same avidity with which he films the natural beauty of the island of Mont Saint-Michel or a Sonic drive-in lighting up the night. The inside of a big-box retail store is greeted by Tatiana exclaiming, “C’est incroyable!,” and the movie clearly agrees with her. The mood of contemplative ecstasy is unbroken by any trace of humor, any hint of malice, or even any character raising his or her voice. Eventually, it all becomes numbing. Without the inventiveness, scope, or world view that The Tree of Life had, Malick’s way of filming seems less like a style and more like a collection of tics and mannerisms.
I wonder if these movies reflect the way Malick experiences the world. Does he walk around the streets of large cities or the plains of Middle America in a state of exalted wonder at the majesty of human existence? If he does, then he’s a very lucky man. Unfortunately, that in itself does not make his prettified visions of transcendence any more convincing, and that’s especially true in To the Wonder.
To the Wonder
Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Rated R. Fri-Sun at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St, FW. $6.50-8.50. 817-738-9215.