James A. George On To The Wonder
JAMES A. GEORGE, EYEWEAR FILM CRITIC, ON THE NEW, POETIC MALICK FILM
It has just passed midnight and I’ve just arrived home from seeing To The Wonder from American auteur, Terrence Malick. Usually I would let a film settle in a day or two before writing about it so that I can come across as informed. As if all the nuances and aspects hit me straight away, and that I am in fact perfectly in tune with the cinematic language. If you’re familiar with Malick’s work since Badlands (1973), up to his most recent The Tree of Life (2011), you will know that the impact during viewing – whether it’s first, second, or tenth viewing – the emotional impact is at its most potent during the film. This is in part due to the stylised aesthetic of his recent work and lack of plot and scenes as you might typically imagine them, which makes it hard to recall moments, like trying to recite a fading dream at breakfast.
I gave myself a slap when I described this film as quaint to a friend. The scope is far more modest than in The Tree of Life, but the themes of love, faith and God are no less bold. Ben Affleck’s lead performance is rumoured to be a surrogate of Malick in a semi-autobiographical study of love; even if so, the lack of insight into the male lead cannot be forgiven. Rachel McAdams appears for an important but brief section of the film as an old flame reignited. If one is pushed to point to a central performance, it would be Olga Kurylenko. With the film sometimes lost in its own beautiful grandeur, and as lovely as Olga Kurylenko is, half the sequences of her prancing around in fields could be cut, and perhaps licking a tree is a bit too much visual metaphor for me. Moments like this border on parody but equally as many fresh ideas and sequences counteract this, some obvious such as exploration of deformity and others subtle like the depleting fertility of the countryside setting. Nonetheless, To The Wonder does a lot to impress.
Its heart is definitely in the right place. It is passionate, humble and powerful. New to Malick is the use of diegetic sound in very human, concrete moments that add an authenticity to the characters and their situations. Amongst the magnificent visual poetry, scenes of specific acts of love and anger had me wistful and contemplative. To The Wonder is low on plot and more concerned with conveying message, but compared to The Tree of Life it is unafraid of incorporating plot and all the better for it.
As with all of Malick’s work, similar to poetry, he hits hard-to-define emotional truths. Although not as raw as 2010’s Blue Valentine, from an audience perspective it is reminiscent of the gut wrenching self-reflection and relation that builds throughout the film. While the arguments in Blue Valentine are vague, the extreme vagueness hinders To The Wonder. Fortunately, mood and thoughts portrayed through the expressions and editing and silence work starkly and magically. This is a film for the poet and fans of Malick’s work – I would not recommend this as a first stepping stone to viewers new to his filmography. Personally, I honestly have not been touched by a film’s majesty this much since my review for The Master.
James A. George is a film-maker and film critic, completing his BA at Kingston University this semester.