Terrence Malick out-Malicks himself
I'm a fan of Terrence Malick's movies. I love the dreamy, impressionistic, heart-achingly beautiful non-linear flow, the extended shots of the natural world, and the emotion in his stories and characters, even when they hardly say anything and nothing much happens. I love the whispered voice-overs and lazily swaying fields of wild grass that someone always seems to be lightly brushing with their hand.
And I'm totally OK with Malick taking 8-20 years to produce these movies. Which is why it was such a shock when To the Wonder came out recently, a mere two years after The Tree of Life. Is it possible to make a movie in his unhurriedly gorgeous style so quickly, and have it be good?
No! I was so disappointed by To the Wonder that I'm a little upset about it. The biggest problem with this movie is the story, which is this: the world's most annoying couple falls in love, then breaks up, twice. In the process, they move from a spectacularly Malickian Paris to a hideous sub-division in Oklahoma (that Malick still manages to infuse with incredible natural beauty) which is probably a big part of what goes wrong. But actually, we really have no idea why they're in love, or what goes wrong with their relationship, either time. "Love" acts as an external force that bestows itself upon them for a while, then goes somewhere else, probably to find a couple that isn't so insufferably irritating to be around.
Which brings us to the characters and actors. If you want to create emotional resonance and depth of feeling in your main characters, you probably shouldn't cast Ben Affleck and a Bond girl. Ben Affleck spends the movie brooding silently, and Olga Kurylenko mostly twirls around in blowsy outfits, probably going for "adorably free-spirited girlish imp", but coming across as "immature clingy woman-child who wants to be a pretty princess ballerina". These are not people I want to spend time with, and we're given no understanding about the workings of their relationship, so I found it impossible to care about them. I think this might be what people who don't like Malick's movies complain about--there's nothing to latch onto.
What's most upsetting is that Malick still uses his (and Emmanuel Lubezki's) cinematographic chops to create moments that are so quietly, perfectly gorgeous that they seem to take on spiritual meaning. There's a scene at the beach near Mont St. Michel and some magic hour scenes with Rachel McAdams in a field that are as beautiful as anything he's ever done. But when they're part of a movie with utterly hollow characters and the sketchiest of plots, they feel a little cheap. Yeah, yeah, nature is holy and beautiful, now can we maybe get a couple lines of dialogue, or one minute without Olga Kurylenko twirling?
Roger Ebert wrote his very last review about To the Wonder, and luckily, he liked it. Whatever he saw, I didn't see it.