To the Wonder

by deerinthexenonarclights

Everything that people make fun of film director Terrence Malick for is taken to its most extreme in his latest picture To the Wonder, which is quite literally just pretentiously narrated shots of pretty scenery for, thankfully, only a little under two hours (length the one trope that the film doesn’t tick). It evokes in a way the image of the cliche ‘European’  movie that people who don’t see anything with subtitles seem to have, though that’s nothing to do with the fact that only around ten percent of the words spoken are in English. For these reasons it’s funny to watch, but only at first; just like how for others, namely the cinematography, it is on occasional beautiful to watch but the novelty of this wears out at much the same speed leaving the rest of the running time largely a labour to sit through, staring at the screen through glazed over eyes.

But sit through it I did because I love Terrence Malick and because there is quite plainly the core of great cinema even here, at the heart of To the Wonder. That title by the way, is not just another line of pseudo-poetics but a veiled reference to the film’s central topic – America – through a rather unusual source: Mont St. Michel, a ruin in Northern Normandy. St.Michel, where the film both begins and ends, is oft referred to as ‘The Wonder of the West’ but the ‘West’ that Malick is wondering about here is that of the United States of America. It is interesting to see these early Europe-set scenes since the ancient cities are a virgin territory for Malick movies but the film soon moves back to America with the false family unit that it loosely follows and that transition sets the thematic stage for the film to come and its contrasting of the two distinct cultures.

Like in many of his movies Malick is using this story to tell us about the United States, to show us yet other side or facet of the land that so fascinates him. America is a land of pristine newness but its land is polluted; it is an inherently rich place but its people are poor; it’s loving but boy does it have a temper. These conflicts and inconsistencies are what he tries to establish throughout the two hour film; perhaps to capture the history of the land in the way that the architects and artists of ancient Europe did in their work before it all blows away into the wind. Its no coincidence, I don’t think, that the ranch at the centre of one vignette runs a herd of Buffalo: the symbol of American Extinction in the same way that the Cowboy is the symbol of American Expansion.

The film then seems to suggest that the States are sick and through both Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem’s characters we see both faith and science trying to tend to these wounds with neither having much of a tangible effect; save to say that they are simultaneously what is tearing the place apart. The scenes that depict this, the ones in which the two men separately visit areas of the small town in which they live, utilize high-art techniques to tell of lower-class conflicts in the same way that the others use a European style to tell an American story.

The technical style of the film is similarly split and schizophrenic, since these few scenes – and all that feature dialogue, though that number is few – are shot as if in a documentary; Malick letting us in on a real-seeming slice of America in-between all those European style shots. The problem is that alongside the modern cameras Malick employs modern camera techniques; shooting handheld for much of the movie and cutting each shot after mere seconds; the precise placement and careful composition rarer than usual and the loving languor of his longer visuals lacking completely.

To the Wonder is also, as the narration informs you frequently, a film about love but on this front the film is far less successful. Ideas can be conveyed through the types of techniques that To the Wonder employs but emotion cannot. There is really no story here to connect to, every time we try to grab onto something it slips out from between our fingers; its simply all subtext. Because of that its hard to really say anything about Ben, Olga, Rachael as actors, they really aren’t given characters to play or moments to play them in; they’re simply props and though they do that we’ll enough they evoke no real emotion, they never make us care about the characters.

Though its often seen as something of a minor stage in the process where To The Wonder really falls apart is in the editing. Though I have my issues with the cinematography, with the acting and with the script they are still far an above the majority of movies released; the way that they are presented however, the pace and order of their presentation, is pitiful. Malick has always been something of an overshooter (the outtakes from The Thin Red Line are higher on my Wishlist than most whole movies) but he can normally construct a strong sequence from the footage, here though he fails to that. Not only were Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen an a whole host of other characters cut but Rachael McAdam’s role is so steeply relegated to the side that her section stops making any sense in the context of the whole. Olga Kuylenko, who is ostensibly the film’s lead, has said that she shot a whole script of dialogue but there is barely a whole scene left in which two characters speak.

Improvisation is an interesting an entirely valid method of making a movie, but it takes a certain type of team and it makes a certain type of movie; To the Wonder doesn’t have the former and doesn’t want to be the latter and so it simply doesn’t work. This could have been a great movie were it only made properly but as it stands this cut is better suited to the role of screen-saver than as something to be studied which is such a shame. I may have seemed to have similar issue with Tree of Life but that film was at least interesting in its ambition and scope, even if the structure and story left something to be desired. To the Wonder seems to end in a hopeful way (though because the story was slight before it was mostly snipped out this is hard to tell), suggesting a future for the states but I left it pessimistic; worried, not excited, by the fact that Malick has another two movies currently in different stages of Principal shooting and another in post. This is how he wants to make movies now, but it sure as hell isn’t how I want to watch them. Compared to current dayMalick the United States is a utopia.