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During the 39 years since the release of Badlands (1973), film aficionados have come to regard the unveiling of a new Terrence Malick movie as a true “cinematic event,” as his latest, To the Wonder, was introduced at its North American premiere Monday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. This excitement is due in part to his immense capabilities as an artist but also, it must be said, because he doesn’t put out many movies. He followed Badlands five years later with Days of Heaven, then took off 20 years before returning with The Thin Red Line, then went silent for another seven before The New World and another six before last year’s The Tree of Life.
Shockingly, though, we now have a sixth Malick movie less than a year after his fifth was feted with Oscar nominations for best picture and best director. Even more surprising is that the general consensus about To the Wonder — both here and earlier this month in Venice, where it was booed during its world premiere — is that Malick probably should have taken a little more time to try to work out its kinks. Indeed, To the Wonder is shaping up to be the 68-year-old’s least critically embraced film yet, which might, in part, account for why it has yet to find a North American distributor. I was far from the only one who found it to be visually beautiful but almost sickeningly self-indulgent and pretentious.
By now, people have a general idea of what to expect from a Malick movie: a film that is more about moods and moments than a clear plot told through a traditional three-act structure; a constantly moving camera; and shots — culled from hundreds of hours of recordings — of fields blowing in the field, machinery pumping away, beautiful women who have little to say, innocent kids running around, people whispering to each other and references to Jesus Christ. This film checks off all of those boxes, yet somehow succeeds far less than many of his other efforts that did the same.
In short, To the Wonder centers on an emotionally distant American (Ben Affleck, who is left with hardly a single line of dialogue in the final cut of the film, which might explain why he elected to fly home before rather than after the premiere) and two women with whom he has serious — or at least passionate — relationships at different points during the course of the film. One is a single mother (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) he meets in Paris and brings back with him to the U.S. heartland, along with her daughter; she insists that she doesn’t hope for marriage, but rather “just to go a little of our way together.” (The first and last minutes of the film feature voice-over narration from her in French, accompanied by English subtitles.) The other is a former childhood sweetheart (a blond Rachel McAdams) with whom he reconnects; she makes no bones about the fact that she does want marriage. (She really only appears for about 10 minutes, give or take, in the middle of the film.)
This guy must be really great in bed, because he doesn’t bring a whole lot else to the table that would explain why two gorgeous women want to please him so desperately; in fact, he seems utterly disinterested in them and everything else. (Actually, my sense, from flashes in the film, is that religious beliefs keep both women from having sex with him, in the fullest sense, prior to marriage.)
The women, meanwhile, feel like an older man’s idealized vision of what young women today are like — providing nothing but sexual gratification and/or aggravation and so carefree and childlike that they literally dance around everywhere, jump from rock to rock, play with dirt, lick trees, chase birds, etc. A little bit of this sort of behavior is endearing; after a while, though, it makes the movie start to feel like one of those R. Kelly operatic music videos that look good but feature ridiculous and drawn-out storylines that never seem to end.
Malick is famous for shooting endless amounts of footage and then slowly culling together a film in the editing room. For this one, Kurylenko and McAdams agreed during a post-screening Q&A (full video here), he shot enough footage to make 10 movies, then left much of it on the cutting-room floor. The actresses acknowledged that they actually shot a number of scenes together and were somewhat surprised that none of those scenes wound up in the final cut. Similarly, I’m sure that there is plenty of footage somewhere of Oscar winner Javier Bardem, who appears only sporadically throughout the film, for reasons that aren’t at all clear.
Perhaps the problem with To the Wonder is that it hit too close to home for Malick to allow him to be objective about it: The filmmaker fell in love with a woman while in France during the 1980s (she became his second wife), then moved back to the U.S. with her. They ultimately divorced, at which point he, too, reconnected with his former high school sweetheart. (The biggest difference — spoiler alert — is that Malick then made the other woman his third wife and remains with her to this day; in the film, his reluctance to marry her causes a severance of their relationship.) When Kurylenko and McAdams were asked during the Q&A if Malick had told them that this film, like The Tree of Life, is semi-autobiographical, they refused to confirm or deny. Kurylenko demurred by saying she felt that was a subject best left to Malick to address (don’t hold your breath), and McAdams granted just that it had been a very “personal film” for him.
The bottom line is this: To the Wonder didn’t go over well here. It wasn’t booed, but it wasn’t cheered either; each of its several false endings, once revealed to be false, prompted audible murmurs, and when the credits finally did begin to roll, the applause was merely polite and not sustained, as it was this year for Cloud Atlas and The Impossible, among others. Even if the film’s distribution rights are picked up at the fest, I can’t imagine that it will come out this year. And, whenever it is released, I have a hard time imagining it will be a major Oscar player, apart from perhaps an art direction nom for Malick’s longtime collaborator Jack Fisk and/or the beautiful cinematography provided by perennial nominee/bridesmaid Emmanuel Lubezski. Then again, the thing that surprised me the most last year was how just popular The Tree of Life proved to be, at least with a segment of the Academy, so I guess one never knows.
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