Sunday, June 23, 2013

To The Wonder

The Tree of Life may have been messy, confused and pompous, but there was at least a great film buried somewhere in that bloated carcass. To The Wonder, Terrence Malick’s follow-up, is pure rot. The director’s characteristic flourishes have deteriorated into self-parody: the camera constantly drifting through the world like a drunken ghost, the narrators whispering sweet nothings in our ears, and light forever flickering on the lens. Frankly, the most surprising thing about this uninspired film is that everyone isn’t blind from the sun constantly shining in their eyes.

Consider the plot, such as it is: Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris, fall in love, move to America, split up, get back together and marry after Neil frolics with Rachel McAdams for a while, break up again after Marina cheats on him, and a priest loves god and Marina’s daughter loves the supermarket and love is love is love love love, to paraphrase the film’s hushed, faux-poetic narration. (Mumble, mumble, says Ben Affleck.) “What is this love that loves us?” Marina actually says at one point. Indeed, and what is this hate that hates us? What is this dog that dogs us? And what is that bison that bisons us? Only Terrence Malick or his understudy, God, knows the answer.

For all his dreamy obscurity, Malick is rarely a very subtle filmmaker, and his limitations are piercingly clear in To The Wonder. So much of the film is spent watching the characters dance over lawns, toss leaves into the air, twirl in the magnificent light and gawp at the world in a state of uninhibited joy. But when these people aren’t drunk on the intoxicating beauty of life, the universe, and Bumfuck, Idaho (or wherever the film is set), they’re staring blankly at nothing as the pain of existence chews up their souls. Malick’s manic-depressive style oscillates between exaltation and sorrow with little time for everything in between, which is unfortunate since that is where most of life is actually lived. Between his lean, stolid men and willowy, petite women, the director’s vision of humanity is little more nuanced than a perfume ad.

Mere life can hardly stand up under the self-conscious gravity of the film. Javier Bardem—who is surely as confused about his role here as the rest of us are—plays a priest going through a rather lackadaisical spiritual crisis. Poverty and pain shake the man’s faith; helping the impoverished and suffering restores it. As far as theological threats go, this is DEFCON four, at best. The film’s environmental concerns are similarly sketchy, amounting to little more than Malick frowning at pollution. Neil takes readings at industrial sites and talks to people living in the shadow of smoke-belching refineries, because these are apparently things he is paid to care about, but that’s about it. (Mumble, mumble, says Ben Affleck.) The director is so divorced from earthly matters most of the time that he’s ill-equipped to say much about the planet. However, the film does offer one powerful, if unintentional statement: against the banality of the modern city, the blandness of the suburbs, and the numbing uniformity of the supermarket, even the poetic ecstasies of Terrence Malick have become feeble and trite.

No comments: