For fans of art-house theatre fare, the release of a new Terrence Malick film is an event unto itself, much akin to the excitement that stirs whenever Thomas Pynchon publishes a new novel. What the two artists have in common — in addition to a very slow output and a reputation for reclusiveness — is an unbridled vision and unmistakable uniqueness.
So it is odd that Malick’s newest film “To the Wonder” opened with little fanfare, especially considering it is headlined by Ben Affleck, Rachael McAdams and Javier Bardem. “To the Wonder” opened in limited release and is available for rent on iTunes.
The plot can be stated simply, and completely, as this: A man (Affleck) falls in love with a European woman (Olga Kurylenko). They whisper. She twirls. Then, he falls in love with an American woman (McAdams). They whisper. She twirls. There is a priest (Bardem). He is lonely. He broods.
And that’s pretty much it.
But the whole thing is utterly breath taking. Like the rest of Malick’s films, “To the Wonder” was shot almost exclusively at “magic hour,” casting long shadows and giving everything just the right glow that only be achieved at sunrise and sunset. As with his last film, 2011’s “The Tree of Life,” Malick enlists the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (cameraman on “Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”). Lubezki and Malick have established a set of “rules” for shooting their films, among them are no unnatural light, no pull focus, and a gliding and swooping camera.
As a result, a Malick film is immediately recognizable even when glancing upon a few frames. Mr. Malick is the very definition of an auteur filmmaker, and his style lends itself to copycats and parodies. Long takes of nature. Water trickling. The camera panning up at trees. There is a deeply romantic and spiritual essence to Malick’s films, and it is on beautiful display in this film.
But what is curiously missing from this latest effort is emotional affectiveness of his previous work. Instead, “To the Wonder” looks like it might have been culled from the reject shots off the cutting room floor during “The Tree of Life.” The latter film, Malick’s undeniable opus, stands among the most visionary and deeply personal American films ever made. By my estimation, it is one of the best.
And so “To the Wonder” feels like a beautiful letdown, a gorgeous failure, a well-intentioned misfire. I cannot recommend it to anyone who is not a devoted follower of Malick or to anyone who is not intrigued by the idea of watching the “Planet Earth” series while a woman whispers “What is this love that loves us?” in French.
“To the Wonder” feels rushed, and I wonder if the film wanders because of its hasty production. Malick usually takes several years, sometimes decades, between films. “To the Wonder” came only one year after “The Tree of Life.” The director claims to “find” his films in the editing room. I think this one is still there.