How much ennui is too much ennui? Terence Malick returns again and again to the weightiness of leisure, the meaning of not just the moments of action, but of the ones in between. His heroes can be described as people with enough time on their hands to turn to crime, or to disorder, or to despair. In his masterpieces (and he has a number of them), we are able to recognize these still moments as the critical points, the inciting incidents in these people’s lives. The moments of action are simply the culminations. In his failures the still moments are not just still but lifeless, disconnected from anything we recognize, they aren’t infused with any meaning. Malick is a man who can distill the nature of romance in a crime spree, or in a wheat field. He can encompass the history of the universe within a single nuclear family. He can bring us along to mysteries that the wisest men are baffled by but he can also leave us in the dark, bereft of direction, with only sumptuous images to feast on. But there is a difference between eating and having a meal and that is the difference between Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), A Thin Red Line (1998), and The Tree of Live (2011) and To the Wonder (2013).
That’s the trouble with Malick. In contrasting his latest movie, I pitted it against four movies that would make most films look insignificant. That those four were directed by the same man, the very same who directed To the Wonder should reflect how high he has set the bar for himself. And To the Wonder comes so close and has more memorable sequences and raises more interesting questions than any movie I’ve seen this year and it should (and will) be applauded for its significant strengths. However, because of his lyrical, spiritual and willfully obtuse style, the line between a successful Malick movie and an unsuccessful one is razor thin, but the gulf between the experiences of being absorbed by a successful Malick movie and simply sitting in front of an unsuccessful one is commodious.
In To the Wonder, Ben Affleck appears as an engineer who meets and falls for a French beauty played by Olga Kurylenko while vacationing in Paris. He takes the woman back to Oklahoma (Affleck works for an oil company where his job seems to be to listen to the complaints of residents who find their property to be contaminated) and soon they are married by the community’s priest (Javier Bardem). Soon after that Affleck finds himself increasingly attracted to a rancher played by Rachel McAdams and Kurylenko is drawn to a carpenter played by Charles Baker. Affleck and Kurylenko engage in rageful and public fights interspersed with sweet but fleeting lovemaking until finally, Affleck puts Kurylenko on a plane back to Europe as if she were the metric system. This story is told with little dialogue in a tableau of arresting and haunting images, some of which build to a great power, of fields and oil wells and churches and homes and stern faces.
The movie is about the difference between sexual and emotional love, Catholic and Protestant traditions and European and American worldviews. It is about pain, loss, boredom, masculinity, responsibility and about as many other abstract nouns you can think of. I know a movie can be about such wide and varying concepts because I’ve seen a few before, some of them directed by Malick, but To the Wonder appears more concerned with simply touching on each and not exploring them in any meaningful way. It’s the kind of movie that reminds you of a roster of better ones but seems to have borrowed the wrong things from its inspiration. It certainly takes its visual style from Malick’s The Tree of Life which was expressionistic and dulcet and obliterated the traditional assembly of a scene, giving us collection of mostly wordless moments, always with a moving camera, and the story, such as it was, is told through whispered voice over, which doesn’t tell the plot as much as it comments on it. The movie also reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) which, along with The Tree of Life, remain, for me, the high water mark of this decade so far. To the Wonder shares it’s DNA with Kiarostami’s movie over a mysterious romance between a flawed but sympathetic couple. The difference is that while I couldn’t tell exactly what Brad Pitt’s character in Tree or Juliette Binoche’s character in Copy were thinking at all times, I had enough evidence to make my own conclusions. Pitt’s character is disillusioned because he believes he’s a failure. Binoche’s character, regardless of the nature of her relationship with William Shimmel’s character, is desperate because she can sense that she is losing something. I don’t know why Affleck seems disillusioned in To the Wonder and I don’t know why Kurylenko seems desperate but more to the point, I’m not sure I care. There isn’t enough known about them for me to attach any interest and certainly not enough to attribute any weight to their relationship. Is it sad that its doomed to fail? Perhaps, but I wasn’t given any indication that they were on the cusp of romantic greatness like I was in Copy’s case nor was I given the impression that these were flawed people doing the best they could for each other like in Tree. To be sure, To the Wonder doesn’t have to follow in either of those two films’ footsteps, the problem is that it does but doesn’t have the right shoes.
More intriguing to me is Bardem’s priest, who isn’t any more realized than Affleck or Kurylenko but strikes a more elemental place than the sexual frustration of the two stars. Bardem is dissatisfied in his job, he no longer feels the presence of Christ, and his work with the handicapped only deepens his disillusion. He’s frustrated, he’s given up on searching for his faith, he’s now searching simply for a way to start searching. “Show us how to seek you,” he prays, using a phrase that I wanted to ask Malick during this abstruse experience. Bardem’s pain, though we do not know the root of it, is more powerful because it displays a genuine shifting in the man’s worldview, a potentially irreconcilable gulf between what he was taught to believe, was trained to believe and what he now believes. He is a man experiencing an emptiness in his soul, not just in his bed.
Malick, who trades in the risky business of attributing meaning to the ordinary has always run a risk of self-parody, increasingly so as his visual style has abandoned the narrative for the metaphysical. When he’s in command, the collections of disjointed images create a poignancy and while they may not make sense on a story level they are consistent along an emotional arc. Viewers might have complained about the structure of The Tree of Life but they were taken on a cohesive journey, just not one that is easily identifiable compared to traditional movies. The camerawork and the editing are exemplary here, especially shots in the church (the movie’s best sequence is a conversation between Bardem and a church custodian about the nature of light) but without the emotional groundwork, much of it comes off as indulgent and repetitive, at worst pretentious and at best comically grandiloquent, like a student film without much story trying to pump weight into a frame that won’t support it. When the connection is made, Malicks style is as fluid and enthralling as anyone’s, when its severed it loses all luster and sections the sense of importance that exists in other films, feels like a sense of self-importance, which is quite different. However, it must be pretty fun to appear in these movies. “What are my lines today, Terry?” “Don’t worry about dialogue, just go run around in that field for the next ninety minutes.” “Any new script pages today, Terry?” “Nope, just frolic expressively in this supermarket while we shoot.” Instead of learning new wrinkles about the characters we get them frowning or running in a different location with the same lack of investment so we are left rudderless in a sea of beauty. Nice as that may be, and it’s nicer than most, its shallow, and from the director of deep thoughts, it’s a failure.