To the Wonder (2012 (festivals), 2013)
Terrance Malick's movies have a cognitive effect similar to the visual tracers that are left behind if you're in a brightly lit room and someone suddenly kills the lights. An imprint of whatever you were looking at will be stamped momentarily before it quickly fades, spectral-like, and the cloak of black is pulled down over your eyes. His films are like visual tracers of stories that once were, full of life and living, but are now only a faded stamp on the memory of the universe. This can explain why the narratives in Malick's films, and particularly in this film and The Tree of Life, seem disjointed or undisciplined. Memory is often disjointed and undisciplined, recalling events in fractured shards rather than in full form with straight line narratives. It's an odd way to experience a movie, especially for people who are used to three act structures, the conflict and resolution storytelling of mainstream moviemaking. It has a closer resemblance to the experimentation and innovation of art house cinema, particularly the European films of the 60's and 70's and the French New Wave movement spearheaded by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. That being said, To The Wonder does have a story, it has a plot, however freely it chooses to tell it. Ben Affleck is a man who falls in love with a woman he meets while on vacation in Paris. He brings her and her daughter back to America and they carry on as new lovers do, with the passionate highs and lows and as her travel Visa is about to expire, they decide, rather than marry, to go their separate ways. He then meets another woman and has a fling with, but finds he is still emotionally committed to his French mademoiselle, who is going through a hard time as her daughter has left her to go live with her father. Affleck brings her back to America, where they marry and go through more ups and downs. Meanwhile a priest, played by Javier Bardem, who works the streets of his parish, spending much of his time with prostitutes, drug addicts and felons, is having a crises of faith, feeling separate from God. But each of his movie's has its own agenda and each its own story to tell: two kids on the run from the law, the senselessness of war, the discovery of new worlds. The Tree of Life and To The Wonder are in a lot of ways about the same things, told the same way. There are even certain shots and sequences that are almost identical in both films.
There's a lot to love and admire in both films, a lot to enjoy and while I love that Malick, after making only five films in 38 years, now has five films coming out just three years apart. It's just hard not to feel like To The Wonder is little more than a remake of his last film. A less ambitious, less profound one. Verdict: Slow, sincere, meditative, gorgeous, awesome, baffling, redundant. Rating: ****
Affleck: "Do you have any idea what's going on in this movie?"
Bardem: "I was hoping you did."