Terence Malick is a filmmaker so outside the Hollywood system that he refuses to even attend the premieres of his films. He’s been known to partially or even entirely remove actors from his movies, and his films have defied and divided the industry for years. Even the presenter of Malick’s latest To the Wonder, which screened to muted and fleeting applause at Toronto, quipped: “I’d like to say the director is here, but we all know that’s not going to happen.”
Malick’s previous outing The Tree of Life similarly spat in the face of the Hollywood machine, opposing the commonplace trends of big budget, star-studded cinema. But where that film contained a semblance of a story and intriguing true-to-life characters, To the Wonder plays like a nature documentary featuring famous actors who wander into the shot from time to time.
Those forgiving enough to say this film has a plot would still struggle to describe it as anything other than fruitless and banal. Essentially, a couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) find and lose love; a woman (Rachel McAdams) has a brief romantic fling; and a preacher (Javier Bardem) contemplates his faith. Don’t expect these stories to actually go anywhere, though, as what little dialogue is present is whispered in Spanish or French, accompanied by never-ending sequences of people dancing in fields or gazing at sunsets. It’s really just a meaningless collage of images, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s typically beautiful cinematography being the film’s only saving grace.
Watching the film tediously unspool, it would seem Affeck’s role was largely removed from the final product. He has only a handful of lines, most all of them muttered in the background, barely discernible. It’s as if Malick initially envisaged Affleck’s character to be the centerpiece of the film, but then changed his mind during the edit, instead pushing Olga Kurylenko’s character to the fore. The film feels sketchy and incohesive as a result, not to mention a giant waste of time for the likes of Affleck and Bardem, whose characters are reduced to nothing more than props that give the frame more depth instead of the narrative. One particularly eye-rolling shot sees the camera suddenly focus on a flock of birds flying above Affleck, for no discernible reason other than “Look! Birds!”
Look, no one can deny Malick’s visual ingenuity. His films are gorgeous, and always feature brilliant musical compositions. But To the Wonder is a cold, lifeless film that has sparse dialogue, no compelling characters and a story that feels more like a brief poem then a plot. As the three people in my row who left at the halfway mark would attest… there’s better things to wonder elsewhere.