After almost two decades out of public view, Terrence Malick's 1998 return to filmmaking with The Thin Red Line was merely the tip of an iceberg that has seen the reclusive director rapidly escalate his rhythm of productivity. To the Wonder, only his sixth feature, premiered at Venice a year after The Tree of Life won the Cannes Palme d'Or. But while, for better or worse, the conflicting reception of that rapturously spiritual film hardly diminished the director's stature as a creator in absolute formal control of his work, To the Wonder comes across as a pale follow-up; a less spiritual yet complementary work that nevertheless seems to suggest a filmmaker treading water, relying overly on the deployment of the stylistic tropes that have since become his trademarks (sweeping handheld tracking shots, natural lighting, non-linear narrative, absence of traditional dialogue replaced by oblique voiceovers).

     The new film reframes on a more prosaic scale the mystical quest for grace of The Tree of Life and the hope that love will eventually find a way, through a looser tale centred on people in crisis: Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a woman who against her better judgments follows her American lover (Ben Affleck) from Paris to Oklahoma only to find things are no longer the same between them, and father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest who is struggling with his own doubt. Worryingly, though, it's not just the characters who seem thrown into crisis; Mr. Malick's impressionist, sensory lyricism seems here the be-all and end-all of the film, as if its camerawork and pitch-perfect melding of sound, music and image would be enough to give the film its depth and structure.

     Yet his tracing of the push and pull of a love affair that moves back and forth as the lovers' feelings ebb and flow hits a brick wall in the absence of characters as such, merely puppets who seem to orbit around each other without ever really touching, disconnected from any attempt at a narrative throughline. (Not surprisingly, the characters' names are never heard throughout and only revealed in the end credit roll.) A good example of this is Mr. Affleck's engineer, a merely physical presence that does nothing but stare into the distance and gives off no sense of why two women would be interested in him; but then, neither does anyone else in the film ever project a sense of a real, live person, unlike in the previous work of the director. Character development may never have been Mr. Malick's forte, but the way he has disregarded it here is surprisingly superficial.

     Of course, the man hasn't forgotten his trade - as expected, To the Wonder looks and sounds glorious. Emmanuel Lubezki's warm tonal cinematography, the precision-tooled, sweeping editing, and the inspired mixing of classical pieces, source music, original compositions and sound design underline how extraordinary Mr. Malick's atmospheric talents remain. But there is also a sense that this is a bag of tricks the director knows inside out and deploys here as a smokescreen to hide the fact that there doesn't seem to be much new or even exciting here. It's also true that familiarity breeds contempt and at such short intervals (apparently, there is another project already shot and another one in production) there's a serious risk the director may be reducing his style to a formula to be repeated ad infinitum. But that alone isn't enough to hide the feeling that To the Wonder is Mr. Malick's most disappointing work so far, looking far too much as if he is coasting on his reputation and rarefied style.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
Director and writer: Terrence Malick
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Hanan Townshend, Daniel Lanois
Designer: Jack Fisk
Costumes: Jacqueline West
Editors: A. J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa
Producers: Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda (Brothers K Productions in association with Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 112 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), May 2nd 2013


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