Terrence Malick’s experimental soap opera

Terrence Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, is unlikely to win him any new fans, but displays his audacious originality.

To the Wonder

After the 20-year break between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick is making up for lost time, with his latest To the Wonder coming out a relatively normal two years after his ambitious spiritual epic The Tree of Life.

Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko play a couple who move (with Kurylenko’s young daughter) from Europe to suburban Oklahoma. In the spirit of Malick’s recent films, it’s light on plot, tracking the couple’s highs and lows with a lot of his trademark existential voice-over. In a subplot (again, I use the term loosely), a Catholic priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with challenges to his faith.

The film seems tailor-made for a Montreal audience, with its largely whispered, voice-over speech alternating between French and English. (Malick also throws in some Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian and even sign language — pretty amazing considering how little dialogue there actually is.)

Oddly, Malick’s decision to focus on a relatively smaller-scale story makes the film flirt even more dangerously with the form of a pretentious art movie. Somehow, you could excuse the poetic grandeur of The Tree of Life since it was about, you know, everything. But since To the Wonder deals more in the soap-operatic struggles of relationship drama, the grand treatment doesn’t always work. Malick’s camera moves are more free-flowing than ever; he often films the way my mom takes pictures, with the tops of people’s heads cut off. Also, how many times do we have to see Kurylenko dance around in a circle to show her free-spiritedness? (According to Malick: many.)

The surburban malaise the film depicts is a first world problem if there ever was one (not to mention the subject of a million other movies). But Malick does make a few gestures to larger issues, with Bardem’s visits to low-income neighbourhoods and Affleck’s job as a surveyor of contaminated land hinting at the economic and environmental catastrophes that surround the couple’s insular life.

As you might expect, the film is visually sumptuous. Malick shows a great appreciation of female beauty (one of my critical colleagues quipped on the way out of the press screening that there was no question about the director’s sexual orientation), with a few ripped male torsos thrown in for good measure. He’s a master of choreographed body language; the film often feels more like a dance piece than a narrative story. And he includes a couple of ecstatic shots of the prairies that recall Days of Heaven, probably his best film.

Ultimately, the film’s theme is a familiar, quintessentially American one: the struggle between the desire to be free and the stability offered by faith and family. It’s not going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but if you can put aside a desire for things like plot and character development, you might enjoy this look at life from a filmmaker who does things differently than anyone. ■