It’s easy to see that “To the Wonder” is the least impressive achievement in Terrence Malick’s 40-year, six film canon—but just how much of a pan is that? When your admittedly tiny oeuvre consists of 1973’s “Badlands”, 1978’s “Days of Heaven”, 1998’s “The Thin Red Line”, 2005’s “The New World” and 2011’s “The Tree of Life”(and they said Kubrick took his time), your lesser of the litter isn’t necessarily not good. It can be just not quite as good. Which I think is going to be the legacy of Malick’s latest, “To the Wonder”. So much of it is classic, marvelous Malick, that you can’t quite dismiss it. On the other hand, there are decidedly—perhaps for the very first time—some sizable bumps in the road. Will I be accused of beating a dead horse if I theorize that the biggest bump is the casting of Saint Ben Affleck? So be it, accuse away. Or do we pile on Malick now, for exposing a chink in the armor? Was he too quick out of the starting gate, releasing his latest just over a year after “The Tree of Life”(“To the Wonder” premiered in September 2012 at the Toronto Film Festival)? Or maybe he’s slightly past-his-prime as he nears becoming a septuagenarian in late 2013? I guess any and all are distinct possibilities. But I like “To the Wonder” anyway. In fact, I like it a lot.
But for a man who’s often been(unjustly)accused of being long on symbolism and short on plot, those charges do begin to stick a bit more via his latest offering. This meditation on life and love is also his first contemporary set film as well, and the classic Malick period lustre is absent. It’s a film about love and the transformation of it. The feeling of fire fades, and then sometimes reignites. And often not. There is fear of commitment, and also emotional and physical betrayal. The film involves a romantic triangle that focuses on an American man(Mr. Affleck), who finally surrenders and takes a beautiful European woman named Marina(a gorgeous and affecting Olga Kurylenko)for his wife. She eventually joins him in Oklahoma, along with her 10 year-old daughter from an earlier relationship. But there is also some attention centered on the blonde American rancher(a well-cast Rachel McAdams)that the man left behind. And the man’s work as an environmental inspector plants “To the Wonder” firmly in the political arena too(fracking, anyone?). Life is complicated, love is messy. And throughout the work there is some light shone(not enough?)on the plight of Father Quintana(the great Javier Bardem), as he tends to the needy—and questions his faith.
“To the Wonder” is the first Malick creation to come in under two hours since the 70’s one-two punch of “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven”(both barely crossed the 90-minute mark). And there are reports of heavy post-production cuts being made that erased entire roles of performers like Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz and Barry Pepper. Is there a restored cut to count on in the hopefully not-too-distant future? Well, there are three distinct versions of Malick’s masterful “The New World” out there, so one never knows. And make no mistake, “To the Wonder” is astonishingly beautiful. Played LOUD via Video On Demand, on my wall-mounted flat-panel HDTV—I tried to get things as close to the actual theater experience as possible. And the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki enraptured me with natural-light images of Americana. The music selections are sweeping. The spirit soars. Only Affleck seems out-of-place. His square-jawed intensity doesn’t seem to fit. I appreciated Brad Pitt’s work in “The Tree of Life” even more after watching Ben in “To the Wonder”. No empty pretty-boy is Brad. It’s not all Ben’s fault, of course. Not known for relying on conventional use of dialogue of late, Malick gives Ben hardly anything to say. But Pitt worked wonders with that same format—Affleck, not so much. I feel this would be a much better film with a stronger actor. But I also hope that my Affleck distaste isn’t stuck in overdrive. After all, I’ve barely had time to lick my “Argo” wounds since late February. So ultimately, “To the Wonder” is a minor film from a major director. Some will also recognize signs of Malick repeating himself for the first time(images and devices from his last three films are unmistakable). But his releases are still an event, and I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Grade: B+