To the Wonder


Whispers on the mournful prairie.

Whispers on the mournful prairie.

(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chilline, Romina Mondello, Tony O’Gans, Charles Baker, Marshall Bell, Casey Williams, Jack Hines, Paris Always, Samaria Folks, Francis Gardner, Jamie Conner, Gregg Elliott, Michael Bumpus, Lois Boston, Danyell Inman, Wigl-Black, Ashley Clark, Tamar Baruch. Directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is a true original and like most true originals, his work isn’t for everybody. His movies are visually arresting, epic and intimate at the same time. However, he tends not to tell his stories in the way that moviegoers are used to.

Neil (Affleck), an environmental engineer from Oklahoma, meets Marina (Kurylenko), a Ukrainian single mom ex-pat in Paris and the two fall deeply in love. So much so that Neil invites Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Chilline) to live with him in Oklahoma.

At first, everything is lovely but as reality sets in, Tatiana begins to miss her friends and Marina is disturbed by Neil’s unwillingness to commit although Marina wants very much to be married. She begins to get counsel from Father Quintana (Bardem), a priest who is having a crisis of faith of his own. Neil’s refusal to marry Marina leads to her visa expiring and her forced deportation back to France where Tatiana goes to live with her father in the Ukraine.

Neil begins a relationship with Jane (McAdams), a high school sweetheart of his who is recently divorced and having financial problems keeping her ranch afloat. When Neil’s commitment phobia submarines that relationship as well, he decides to bring Marina back with consequences that might just doom that relationship for good.

Like all of Malick’s films, this is simply exquisite from a visual aspect. Windswept prairie, picturesque small town downtown, suburban neighborhood, Parisian landmarks – all look epic and timeless under the watchful eye of Malick and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Even a common supermarket looks amazing and wonderful the way it is shot here.

There is no dialogue to speak of; almost everything that the characters say is done in a voice over in short bursts almost like poetry as their thoughts are what we hear rather than what they actually say. In a sense, it’s more honest than dialogue.

However, in an attempt to make cinematic poetry, the lines that the characters speak are often pretentious non-sequiturs that  have really sound much more thoughtful than they are. It goes through the whole film so really your tolerance for this sort of thing is going to determine how much you like the movie.

The actors are more or less props here. None of the lead performances are particularly memorable; they are made to convey moods and feelings so there are a lot of soulful expressions and child-like grins. Affleck has almost no dialogue; the voice-overs belong to both of the women in his life and Father Quintana and are done in three languages – Marina in French, Jane in English and Quintana in Spanish.

I get the sense that this is Malick’s take on a Bergman film; everyone in it is miserable and the stunning vistas reminded me of The Seventh Seal and other classics by the Swedish master. This is also in many ways one of Malick’s most spiritual films; much of the movie revolves around the loss of faith in something bigger than oneself whether that be God or love or the world. Nearly all of the characters undergo a crisis of faith in one form or another and the movie’s final shot of Mount Saint Michel in France may be as outright spiritual a shot as you’re likely to see in an American movie that isn’t faith-based to begin with.

Mention must be made of the score which is scintillating. Compose Hanan Townshend (who is apparently not related to the Who guitarist Pete Townshend) utilizes many classical works of the 19th and 20th century, particularly to the Prelude from Wagner’s Parsifal which is beautiful enough that you don’t get tired of its regular use. Also in the Oklahoma scenes, the sound of the wind blowing mournfully through the wheat fields is used to excellent effect. The Blu-Ray advises you to turn your sound up and I would concur with that; the sound is as important a part of the film as the visuals and picking up on the nuances will only add to the enhancement of the movie.

I get the sense that Malick is out to make the perfect film. He gets a little closer with each try but at the end of the day I think he ends up believing the next one will be the one. He isn’t very prolific except for lately; he made a movie two years ago, this one last year and another one is due out sometime this year or early the next. Considering that output would about triple what he had made in the previous dozen years before that and equal his output since 1978 (!) might give you an idea of how amazing his recent creative spurt has been.

As I said earlier, this isn’t for everybody. While the storytelling is linear, that is about all moviegoers will recognize about it. This is a series of images, some with thoughts attached to it, essentially like a memory of the events from years in the future. Not all about it is easy to digest and requires some thought. You can also just let the images wash over you and bask in their beauty, and that is a worthwhile endeavor also.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most beautiful visual cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the most frustrating cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Malick to be set entirely in the present day. It also has the distinction of being the last movie to be reviewed by Roger Ebert; the review was published posthumously.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.8M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: No-No: A Dockumentary