If The Tree of Life left you wondering if the once great Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) had wandered into the realm of self-parody, To the Wonder will tear any remaining doubt from your mind. Monotonous, inaccessible and embarrassingly self-indulgent, this elliptical cinematic meditation on love and indecision is not only a bad film, it could very well represent the point at which the enigmatic American filmmaker ceases to be relevant entirely.
Say what you will about the meandering pretentiousness of The Tree of Life, at least it was unique. This movie, on the other hand, feels like a B-roll from that previous work, and is so riddled with recognisable Malick clichés – sunlight filtering through leaves, actresses pirouetting endlessly in fields, obvious philosophising whispered ceaselessly over the soundtrack – that it fails to be remarkable at all. But hey, at least it’s under two hours.
Although Malick seems to have long left the world of the conventional narrative behind, To the Wonder does unfold in a relatively straight-forward and mostly linear manner. A Parisian woman (Olga Kurylenko; Quantum of Solace) falls in love with an American man (Ben Affleck; The Town) and goes to live with him in the United States. But then they fall out of love and she returns to Paris, only to come back to America after Affleck has a brief relationship with Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris). So this waltz continues (complete with actually skipping and dancing) for about two hours until the movie just sort of…ends. Javier Bardem (Biutiful) also shows up as a priest around wanders around for a little bit – it’s about as connected to the other story as it sounds.
Even more than with Tree of Life, what little chance one has with connecting emotionally with To the Wonder is hamstrung by Malick’s misguided indulgence in experimental form. Between them the actors have perhaps one hundred words of onscreen dialogue, and at no point does Malick even attempt to communicate why the films various relationships – be it between Affleck and Kurylenko, or Bardem and God – are on the brink of falling apart. Meanwhile, the hushed voiceover narration from the various characters somehow manages to be both laughably heavy-handed in spelling out how the characters are feeling, and cringingly pretentious, like a self-important poet who doesn’t realise how generic and clueless his existential whinging actually sounds.
Photographically, Malick and his acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have once again captured many striking images. Unfortunately, for beauty to truly leave an impression, it has to be unique or outstanding. In a Malick film, ethereal shots of nature, or of an actress spinning purposelessly around in a circle, are the norm. Rarely do these visuals evoke feelings of awe, because they resemble so closely all those that came before or after them, both within To the Wonder and the director’s filmography at large. There’s simply nothing new.
This is not to say some of the shots aren’t technically impressive. So broad and purposefully obscure is Malick’s mode of filmmaking that everyone will be able to find at least one shot to latch on to – for me it was a moment in an amusement park that, admittedly, had me utterly captivated. But these moments are few and far between, and as the film drags slowly onwards, you start to feel restless before flat-out boredom sets in.
Moreover, when you consider the fact that a) this is Malick’s second film in two years after making only four in the last four decades, as well as b) his notoriously radical editing process (Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain and Michael Sheen were all allegedly cut from To the Wonder), you can’t help but fell that perhaps this movie is little more than the visual and thematic leftovers from a much more ambitious (if equally disastrous) earlier effort. If that was a tree, what’s left is little more than kindling. And if To the Wonder is the kind of film we get when Malick is prolific, I’d rather he took another ten or twenty years off.