Malick either inspires or bores. There isn’t much middle ground when it
comes to assessing the famously reclusive filmmaker who has made only
six features since his 1973 debut, Badlands.
His Tree of Life in
2011 earned praise and derision alike for its ambitions and meandering,
largely plotless tale. It was my No. 1 film that year, but I had no
idea at the time that it would look like Iron Man 3 when compared to his follow-up, To the Wonder.
Screening Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, To the Wonder is
a meditation on faith, God, love, relationships, forgiveness — you name
it. Malick does not want for artistic aspirations. Coherence, however,
is another matter.
The story, such as it is, concerns a romance between Neil (Ben Affleck, Argo), an Oklahoma native who doesn’t talk much, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko, Oblivion), a
Ukrainian single mother living in France. The couple frolics — there is
much copious and literal frolicking — amid the streets of Paris.
Eventually, Neil brings his lover and her 10-year-old daughter back to
the Sooner State.
Shot largely in Bartlesville and surrounding areas, To the Wonder is
a coming home of sorts for Malick, who partly grew up in northern
Oklahoma and whose parents still reside there. The land is presented at
its most lovely, from sprawling fields and open skies to the bison
roaming the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Even a Sonic drive-in at
twilight receives the Malick treatment.
Coupled with the always-moving camera of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who lensed Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World, the
movie offers some of the most spectacular views of Oklahoma you’ll see
outside an energy company commercial. “A land so calm, honest, rich,”
she also finds her new home to be isolating, especially with Neil busy
so often with his job, something about surveying environmental problems.
The alone time allows
Marina to twirl through grocery stores and practice flopping onto her
bed. It’s not enough. When her visa expires, she and her daughter return
Neil finds solace with Jane (Rachel McAdams, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), an
old flame whose ranch is in financial trouble. “You make me laugh. You
make me happy,” Jane tells Neil in one of the film’s more inadvertently
hilarious moments, considering that the man says little and broods much.
While the Neil-Marina-Jane triangle slogs on, To the Wonder incorporates a Bartlesville clergyman (Javier Bardem, Skyfall) having a crisis of faith.
of faith are contagious here, especially when it comes to trusting that
this fog of pretentiousness is going anywhere. Characters appear and
disappear without explanation, a likely by-product of Malick reportedly
having left reams of material on the cutting-room floor — including
entire scenes with such names as Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain and
remain is first-person, largely whispered voice-over containing such
nuggets as, “I in you. You in me.” The Beatles said pretty much the same
thing in “I Am the Walrus,” and in under five minutes.
Malick’s artistry is unequivocal in To the Wonder. Its
painterly visuals are impressive, as is the sheer audacity of what’s on
its mind. But loftiness needs a little weight to keep it from floating
away. In the end, its lack of focus and discipline inspires more boredom
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