The Olympian indifference and almost comical current of fuck-you nothingness that runs through Terrence Malick‘s To The Wonder, which I saw last night at the Princess of Wales theatre, carries a certain fascination. I was prepared for it, having heard from Ben Affleck in Telluride that it “makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers” and having read the Venice Film Festival reviews. So it was hardly a shock to encounter a wispy, ethereal thing composed of flaky intimations and whispers and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s wondrous cinematography with maybe 20 or 25 lines of dialogue, if that.
It’s basically The Tree of Life 2: Oklahoma Depression. It’s Malick sitting next to you and gently whispering in your ear, “You wanna leave? Go ahead. Go on, it’s okay, I don’t care…do what you want. But you can also stay.”
And that’s the thing about this film. Malick gives you so little to grapple with (at least in terms of a fleshed-out narrative and that thing we’ve all encountered from time to time called “speech” or “talking” or what-have-you) that it’s pretty much your responsibility to make something out of To The Wonder‘s 112 minutes. It’s all about you taking a journey of your own devising in the same way we all take short little trips with this or that object d’art in a gallery or a museum. The film is mesmerizing to look at but mostly it just lies there. Well, no, it doesn’t “lie there” but it just kind of swirls around and flakes out on its own dime. Run with it or don’t (and 97% of the people out there aren’t going to even watch this thing, much less take the journey) but “it’s up to you,” as the Moody Blues once sang.
To The Wonder doesn’t precisely fart in your face. It leads you rather to wonder what the air might be like if you’ve just cut one in a shopping mall and there’s someone right behind you, downwind. That’s obviously a gross and infantile thing to think about, but To The Wonder frees you to go into such realms if you want. It’s your deal, man. Be an adult or a child or a 12 year-old or a buffalo. Or a mosquito buzzing around a buffalo. Naah, that’s dull. Be a buffalo and sniff the air as Rachel McAdams walks by! You can go anywhere, be anything. Which is liberating in a sense, but if you can’t or won’t take the trip you’ll just get up and leave or take a nap or throw something at the screen. Or get up and leave and head for the nearest mall.
I went with it. I wasn’t bored. Well, at least not for the first hour. I knew what I’d be getting into and I basically roamed around in my head as I was led and lulled along by Lubezki’s images and as I contemplated the narcotized blankness coming out of Affleck’s “Neil” character, who is more or less based on Malick. Or would be based on Malick if Malick had the balls to make a film about himself, which he doesn’t. If Malick had faced himself and made a film about his own solitude and obstinacy and persistence…wow! That would have been something. But Malick is a hider, a coward, a wuss. He used to be the guy who was up to something mystical and probing and mysterious. Now he tosses lettuce leaves in the air and leaves you to put them all into a bowl as you chop the celery and the carrots and the tomatoes and decide upon the dressing.
I came out of it convinced that I will never, ever visit Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where the film was mostly shot.
There’s a kind of mad breakout scene in the second half in which Romina Mondello, “playing” an Italian-born friend of Olga Kurylenko, who “plays” Ben Affleck‘s French wife, says “there’s nothing here!” and you’re sitting there in your slumber and going “no shit?” But it’s not just the place — it’s the emptiness and the nothingness that Affleck and Kurylenko, who have become lovers in her native Paris (just as Malick fell in love with and married Michelle Morette in the mid ’80s), bring to their blah-fart activities in the film — wandering around, making love, playing kid-wrestling games, staring at sunsets, moving this or that piece of furniture from one room to another or lifting it out of a cardboard box, etc. These are people who are investing in their own torpor. People who bring nothing to the table. Deadheads.
Kurylenko and McAdams did a brief q & a after the film, and Kurylenko talked about how her character is supposed to be a little “crazy” — unbalanced, obsessive. Except there’s nothing in the film that persuades you of this, or even hints at it, really. Her character is passionate and emotional and has no real compulsion in life — nothing to do except twirl around, make goo-goo or fuck-you eyes at Affleck, take care of her 12 year-old daughter, sleep, make love, wonder about stuff, prepare meals, wander, daydream.
I raised my hand and asked Kurylenko and McAdams if Malick ever talked about how the film is largely based on his own life and how this was at least a key part of the fabric of it all, and they both kind of looked at each other and then at the floor and more or less said, “Ask Terry…that’s his affair.”
From the TIFF press notes: “As Malick liberates himself more and more from the restrictions of conventional narrative and pursues a more associative approach, he gets closer to eliciting pure, subconscious responses from his viewers. It is gratifying to note that the same man who long ago wrote an uncredited draft of Dirty Harry now finds freedom in the transcendental.”