Skip to main content

Life’s a dream. In a dream you can make mistakes. In a dream you can be whatever you want.

To the Wonder
(2012)

(MILD SPOILERS) Terrence Malick’s latest rumination falls considerably short of post-career comeback triumphs The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Accordingly, it has more in common with his 2005 Pocahontas tale The New World; a visually resplendent piece of work (as are all his films) but one that fails to resonate.


Maybe it’s all in the casting, despite the evidence that his actors are somewhat superfluous to his goals. The number that have ended up on his cutting room floor is legendary, although it says as much about their unabated desire to work with a legend as his capacity for pruning and reshaping his projects in the edit (with scant regards for his thespians). The Thin Red Line bears the evidence of this most heavily (star turns from the likes of Travolta and Clooney stick out like a sore thumb as they only appear for a scene or two), and more recently Sean Penn passed comment about how little of his performance remained in The Tree of Life. This time numerous actors (and therefore subplots) vanished from the finished article; there was no Rachel Weisz, or Amanda Peet, or Barry Pepper, or Jessica Chastain, or Michael Sheen. And those we are left with are unable to sufficiently define their characters. With a Ben Affleck, I doubt that all the time in the world would have made his role seem more rounded. But it’s difficult to argue that Javier Bardem has a less than irrepressible screen presence. And yet, he fails to make much impact. So maybe it’s not just about the casting.


What survives the mass slaughter of Malick’s editing process is almost wilfully oblique; it’s clear that the director has intentionally repositioned Affleck’s Neil at arm’s length, such that he is witnessed through the eyes of those with whom he has relationships (mainly Olga Kurylenko’s Marina). But the actor’s a bit of a blank at the best of times (either stoical or wooden, depending on the role). Neil is granted very little dialogue, either voiceover or spoken, and one assumes that he is impenetrable because that’s how Marina sees him. The problem is, the picture as a whole is content to occupy this space, out of reach and inert. It’s as if Malick wishes to tread as closely to a non-narrative form as possible. He hangs the loosest of threads together, daring the imponderables to stick. 


Neil is ostensibly the hub of the film, as it is around him that the relationships with Marina and Jane (Rachel McAdams) revolve. In Paris, Neil begins a relationship with the Ukranian Marina. She and her daughter move to Oklahoma with him. When their relationship begins to fall apart, Neil takes up with old friend Jane. The other significant character is Father Quintera (Bardem), a Catholic priest with great doubts over his faith; the paths of Neil and Marina cross his periodically.


I did wonder if Wonder’s tonal variation to The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life might be the key to its failure to connect. Where those films resonated through their characters’ hopes and spiritual awareness, here the director abides with those who are lost or struggling. He leaves it doubtful as to whether any relief is possible (the harsh realities of ephemeral or unrequited love, be it toward another or God). But I don’t think that’s all it is. Unwilling to engage wholly with the relationships between his characters, Malick has nothing solid to fall back on. The Thin Red Line contrasted the starkness of war with the longings of its embattled soldiers. The horror of conflict was juxtaposed with the beauty of the natural world. The Tree of Life set the birth of the universe against the microcosm of a Texan family upbringing. Here, the relationships are murky (Marina appears to be bipolar; we see her veer from prancing and dancing – to be fair she is a ballerina – to abject despair) or underdeveloped (Jane barely features, which would be fine if she was intended to contrast with a fully realised Marina, but the latter remains at a distance).


It’s possible that the “solidity” in this regard was intended for Quintera; it is his questioning relationship with God that has the clearest “structure” (we see his ministrations, but also his fear when one of his flock perceives his lack of belief). But like Jane, Quintera never registers more than tangentially. All of this might have still found form had Malick not semi-dispensed with meaningful voiceovers. In To the Wonder they have become mere fragments, the imploring searching discourses of Thin Red Line long since abandoned. What remains with Quintera is a dried up husk of hope; all he can do is persevere.


Characters’ meditations, now half-whispered commentaries, are borne mainly from confusion and lack of insight (in Marina’s case); they are as enigmatic and elliptical as the characters. When combined with the absence of dramatic incident the result is a very pretty, rather bloated experimental movie; close to an extended montage sequence than a coherent narrative. This may be the intent; as Marina’s friend Anna (Romina Mondello) says “Life’s a dream. In a dream you can make mistakes”. Characters perceptions and experiences form a diffuse mist. Factors that once suggested connection and affirmative forces now signify distance (the aforementioned voiceover, but also the ever-present natural world). Nature is less a comfort (although as beautifully shot as ever) and more a representation of characters’ isolation amidst its canopy.


There is a cumulative point too where the picture ever so slightly begins to feel like a parody of Malick movies. You can feel the director straining for meaning and import to the brink of unintentional comedy. I’m reminded of After the Fox where Peter Sellers’ (fake) film director improvises a scene with Victor Mature and Britt Ekland. In a send-up of neo-realism he instructs them to run and run, as symbolically “No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourselves!” “Ahhh! Beautiful!” replies Mature’s ham actor. In To the Wonder, Neil and Marina visit a kitchen supply store and stand amid the washing machines while she plays with a connecting hose. Neil runs from a chicken Marina is clutching (at least To the Wonder can boast the sight of Ben Affleck fleeing a fowl). Neil and Jane stand in fields of long grass. Neil, environmental inspector by day, tramps through a mire of mud at a snowy site (still looking beautiful, but in a slightly dirty way); doubtless this symbolises the state of his life, but why we are shown it Malick only knows (he won’t allow us into Neil’s head). Sunlight is constantly caught through the leaves of trees; it’s a like comedian who keeps telling the same tired joke because an audience laughed at it once.


There has been discussion of the precise fates of Neil and Marina (together or apart, in positive or negative states), but in honesty the conversation has failed to grab me. Simply because Malick’s film hasn’t moved me; I don't really care about his characters, because he hasn't given me enough to do so. The director is adept at visual poetry as ever he was, but this time he has pared away his other most fascinating quality as a filmmaker; his existential contemplations. Maybe he feels he has gone as far as he can in one direction (Malick, an Episcopalian and one-time philosophy lecturer, is inescapably stirred by spiritual deliberations); it will be interesting to see if Knight of Cups and its companion project find the director tackling his pet themes from a different storytelling position. I hope so, as I’m not sure how much time I have for further forays along this path; an approach that was once liberating has become a formal cul-de-sac.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?