Wednesday, February 27, 2013

To the Wonder (2013)

To the Wonder
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
Grade: B

Those put off by the broader themes in Malick’s vision in “The Tree of Life” can be assured that “To the Wonder” reverts to a form of romantic personalisation that won him loyal supporters back in “Days of Heaven.” A rural-American setting once again provides the landscape for a story which reinforces themes of dislocation and estrangement, but details them as a destructive factor in a relationship, rather than a uniting, primitive bond, as in his 1978 romance.

The courtship of Affleck’s Neil and Kurylenko’s Marina exercises Malick’s enterprising visual flair, his inherent tenderness as a filmmaker giving their romance a swooning, crystallising glow. The couple’s subsequent deterioration echoes common relationship issues like cultural mismatch, commitment phobia, and even boredom, problems which could easily grow repetitive and tire a film so attached to narrative pitfalls, like last year’s “Keep the Lights On.” Malick’s style ensures that, largely, this isn’t the case, never fully immersed in the finer details of the couple – we get flashes of dialogue regarding VISA trouble and a sexual issue, but never more than that – and therefore able to curb the potentially overwrought nature of their relationship in favour of his trademark visual storytelling.
The disadvantage of this technique is that “To the Wonder” becomes more reliant upon individual performances than any of Malick’s previous films – save for maybe “Badlands” – to provide bursts of characterisation, and the success of the cast members vary significantly. Kurylenko gives an astonishingly layered performance, imbued with the precocious, playful qualities which make her endearing in the first place, but reveal themselves to be tiresome and misguidedly idealistic that it’s no wonder Neil loses interest in Marina. Affleck – who it’s good to see back in front of the camera again – fares less well, not necessarily through a particular fault of his own, but rather that Malick seems less interested in his character’s plight than Kurylenko’s, whose effervescent complexion fits more with his entrancing, romanticised view of a doomed love affair. In any case, he doesn’t afford Affleck as much freedom as Pitt in “The Tree of Life” or Caviezel in “The Thin Red Line,” tortured male characters who were far easier to identify with.

While some attest that “The Tree of Life” is a religious film, its reverence of the natural mystique reads more to me as a spiritual piece uncommitted to God, or Jesus. The attempts to introduce Catholicism into “To the Wonder” sit less well – not because they represent a more specified belief system, but because they’re closely associated with guilt, and there isn’t a strong enough sense of duty from either of the couple to warrant that aside. At under two hours “To the Wonder” feels drawn out, too, although positively so: the conviction of its director towards creating an emotional pull makes the film visually extraneous without letting its characters overstay their welcome, and may perhaps best demonstrate the appeal of Malick’s unique brand of cinema.

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