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

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Don’t you break into like, a billion homes a year?

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
(SPOILERS) Tis the season to be schmaltzy. Except, perhaps not as insufferably so as you might think. The Christmas Chronicles feels very much like a John Hughes production, which is appropriate since it's produced by Chris Columbus, who was given his start as a director by Hughes. Think Uncle Buck, but instead of John Candy improving his nieces and nephew's lives, you've got Kurt Russell's Santa Claus bringing good cheer to the kids of the Pierce household. The latter are an indifferent duo, but they key here is Santa, and Russell brings the movie that all important irrepressible spark and then some.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You counselled him and then he shot himself.

First Reformed (2017)
(SPOILERS) This uneven at best Roman Catholic – I know, it concerns a protestant church, but who are we trying to kid? – eco-guilt picture from Paul Schrader that has been hailed as his best in years, which it probably is, but these things are relative. Schrader has made, for the first hour or so, an engrossing study of faith, doubt and despair, but his choices after that, particularly during the last half hour, undo much of the effort.

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…