Friday, April 19, 2013

To The Wonder (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Terrence Mallick


Despite Terrence Mallick's already formidable reputation, Tree of Life seemed to come out of nowhere two years ago as this breathtakingly beautiful, yet frustratingly whisper-y meditation on life and the universe. It was Mallick's biggest hit since 1999's The Thin Red Line, and it got him several Oscar nominations. Now, the filmmaker notorious for taking many, many years to complete projects (there was a 21-year gap between Days of Heaven and Thin Red Line) is churning out pictures with alarming speed, and To The Wonder is just the first of four films that should be released within the next year or so. It's just as etherial and meandering as all of his previous films, but To The Wonder seems to have an earnestness and a beauty that I've never really seen (or perhaps, never really appreciated?) in anything else he's done. Even in its most cynical moments, To The Wonder is probably the most uplifting cinematic achievement of his career.

This is Mallick's third collaboration with cinematographer with Emmanuel Lubezki - who is a genius in his own right and has sparked Mallick's films since they've started working together. There are photographic moments within Tree of Life that possessed a kind beauty that I don't think I'd ever seen in a movie before, and To The Wonder continues that tradition. But this time the story is a bit more pointed and less sprawling. When the film takes time to meditate, it doesn't do so with twenty-minute sequences on the creation of the universe; but instead staying alongside the characters as they walk through the various landscapes that the movie inhabits. And like most of Mallick's work, its spiritual connection with its setting creates some of the film's best moments.

But what stands out about To The Wonder (against his other work) is how connected it is with its characters. Tree of Life and Badlands were lucky enough to have terrific performances, but Mallick always seemed to have more interest in wonderful shots and technical wonder (no pun intended). And while Wonder still skirts a lot of dialogue, to instead use Mallick's much preferred whispered voiceover narrations, we still connect with the people in this more than you would with most of those you meet. The center of the film revolves around Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Parisian mother who falls in love with a visiting American named Neil* (Ben Affleck). They fall in love instantly. So much so that Neil packs up Marina and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), and takes them back with him to Oklahoma.

But while the beautiful pastures and overall sunniness of the United States pleases Marina, Tatiana is sad without her friends and the familiarity of Paris. And Marina notices as Neil begins to distance himself as he oogles other woman and, more importantly, does not want to marry her. When Marina goes back to Paris after her Visa expires, Neil sparks up a romance with Jane (Rachel McAdams) - a woman he knew when he was a child and who's recently lost her young daughter. In an eerily similar, cyclical way, Neil and Jane quickly fall into a passionate love together. But that relationship is quickly interrupted when Marina tells Neil how unhappy she is. How she'd like to come back to the States and how she's miserable in Paris. She wants to come back and marry Neil so she can get her green card and stay.

It's pretty hard to tell whether To The Wonder's views on love are pessimistic or not. Though it seems obvious that Neil and Marina are trapped with in a serious case of "can't-live-with-'em-can't-live-without-'em" whirling romance that tends the plague the kind of emotional, beautiful people that they tend to be. Their relationship and eventual marriage runs the usual gamut but they keep coming back. This is why Wonder's other storyline - dealing with Javier Bardem's Father Quintana - is so important. Quintana is a priest that leads a church within Neil's Oklahoma town, but has found himself having a harder and harder time reaching out to God. He converses with everyone in town, even with Neil and Marina on occasion. He speaks with the impoverished and those in prisons, hoping to instill them with faith and hope. But within him is a deep loneliness that grows larger and larger, and threatens the faith that has come to take up so much within his life.

Father Quintana's story takes up only a fraction of To The Wonder's running time, but Mallick is sure to point out that its not only romantic love that is so fleeting. Spiritual love comes and goes with the same amount of rumbling temperament. This is nothing new. Mallick's work has often battled questions of mortality through the prism of religion. He's quick to point out the hypocrisies, but never in a mean way. But instead, in a way that seems obvious. In a lot of ways, Father Quintana is similar to Sean Penn's Jack in Tree of Life, a secondary character detached from the movie's main storyline supplied only to bring a richness and perspective to the film. But Bardem is a lot better at being wistful and plodding than Penn was, and while Penn's asides seemed obtrusive, Bardem slides in and out seamlessly throughout Wonder.

The real star of this movie is Kurylenko. The Ukranian actress has been a Bond girl (in 2008's Quantum of Solace) and has since been a kind of automatic "beautiful woman to star opposite action star" in the movies ever since (see her opposite Tom Cruise in Oblivion in theaters now). To The Wonder is Kurylenko's first real chance to perform in an American film. Sure, she is still a bit of an object that Mallick frames and choreographs like a beautiful doll - but isn't that essentially what Mallick does with all of his actors? Kurylenko just happens to be more beautiful than the rest of them. Surely, Kurylenko is very beautiful, like a more exotic Catherine Zeta-Jones, but she also flawlessly guides herself through love and heartbreak in way that doesn't seem contradictory (which is hard to do within the time frame of a single movie). I can't think of a better actress for Mallick to specifically target for his cinematic beautification.

I like To The Wonder a bit more than Tree of Life, though Tree of Life is probably a better film - a much vaster story with more stunning visuals. But this story is a bit softer and the film overall is more romantic, even if its visions of love aren't exactly complimentary. I found To The Wonder's performances to be more substancial and less a consequence of Mallick's strict storytelling. Its just an overall more entertaining picture, which is a weird thing to say about Terrence Mallick, but there it is. I know many were turned off by it when it premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, but the tenor of the complaints felt weird to me (which all had the ring of "Yeah, man, I was willing to put up with this for Tree of Life, but again!?"). I think that To The Wonder is an achievement to be held against some of Mallick's best work and is probably going to end up being one of best films of 2013.

*It should be noted, I guess, that I don't recall any of the names that appeared in this movie, and wasn't aware of any of these names until I looked them up on IMDb.

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