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Film review: TO THE WONDER, from Built For Speed

Enigmatic director Terence Malick is about to divide audiences once again with his latest perplexing cinematic tone poem To the Wonder.  Post-film arguments will rage over whether this movie is a profound statement of existential malaise, decaying faith and suburban alienation or just pretentious drivel?

Although Malick has ditched the dinosaurs in To the Wonder, he has managed to create an even more abstract film than The Tree of Life.  The film follows a barely perceptible storyline as lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) move from Paris to a desolate Oklahoma suburb where infidelity, unfulfilled lives and possibly Marina’s mental illness cause their tempestuous relationship to unravel. Floating around this story are depressed local priest Javier Bardem who is suffering a crisis of faith and Neil’s old flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). Their collective experiences don’t amount to a compelling or entirely discernible story as Malick seems once again intoxicated with beguiling visuals and mood rather than narrative or character.

To the Wonder is almost entirely composed of fragmented, dream-like images of urban and natural landscapes and people frolicking in fields of tall grass, traipsing through the streets or staring into space with angst-ridden expressions. Individually, these scenes – which were lensed by Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – are ravishing and nearly every frame could be displayed in a photographic exhibition.  Less appealing is the woozy and vertiginous effect created by Malick’s jump-cut editing which initially creates an intriguing distortion of time and space but eventually becomes tiresome.

Malick once again appears to have been influenced by Stanley Kubrick as To the Wonder recalls the grandeur and precision of Kubrick’s films. The Kubrick influence is also felt in the prominent use of intense classical music which includes Bach, Wagner and new compositions by Hanan Townshend.

Exactly what Malick is trying to say with To the Wonder isn’t always clear although he does explore his regular theme of the relationship between man and nature.  The film frequently switches between scenes of people communing with the natural world and images of a landscape scarred and poisoned by industry.

It may be a privilege for actors to work with the fabled Malick but the roles in this film are pretty thankless.  The characters of To the Wonder are mostly cyphers in Malick’s strange, hallucinogenic world.  Still, the striking images of Olga Kurylenko’s exotically beautiful face burn themselves in the memory.  It’s unfortunate, though, that she is stereotyped as a flaky female who spends most of the film throwing tantrums or cavorting about in fields.  Ben Affleck doesn’t fare much better as his character, Neil, is so thinly written he’s almost invisible.  Similarly, Javier Bardem’s and Rachel McAdams’ characters seem like brief flickering memories.

The characters also have very little dialogue apart from a few breathy intonations which, during the Parisian scenes, makes it feel as if we are watching an upmarket perfume commercial.  At times it seems like the actors have accidentally wandered into shot as Malick was filming another striking landscape.  Consequently, we’re always kept at a distance from the characters and we’re never given the opportunity to form an emotional connection with any of them.

This obtuse film is challenging and often visually striking and those who simply wish to revel in Malick’s mysterious world and stunning tableaux will be enraptured.  Those looking for a robust storyline, clearly defined characters and involving drama are advised to stay away.

 

Nick’s rating: Two & a half stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Terence Malick.

Release date: 4th July 2013

Running time:  112 mins.

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