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It takes a while to get used to Terrence Malick's style in his recent movies. Tree of Life, released in 2010, was an ambitious story of evolution, life and spirituality, which put images first and plot second. His most recent release, To the Wonder, has more of a story, but it takes some work to see how it is being told. The time depicted shifts around backwards and forwards, leaving the viewer bewildered. It isn't clear whose perspective the images are from, and whether brief flashbacks are memories or some other kind of depiction of the past. The dialog is sparse, and a fair amount of it is in French, with subtitles. More than that, Malick's approach is so portentous, completely lacking in wit or humor. The main narrator is Marina, who falls in love with Neil. They meet in France, but she is, according to the synopsis of the movie, Ukranian, while he is from the USA. She is a single mother with a 10-year-old girl, and they move together to his home town in small-town rural America. The themes of the movie are very clear: romantic love is both beautiful and fragile; Paris is a city of breathtaking beauty and sophistication, while rural America is often ugly and crude; yet it also has qualities that make is stand out over the old European traditions. There is also some exploration of Christianity, and maybe especially the meaning of love in that religion. Malick is obviously attempting a new method of telling stories, which prioritizes visual contrasts, mixes time up, is often very abstract and confusing, but is remarkable in how unusual and distinctive it is. The camera is often moving around and shots often come from unusual perspectives. The music, which is mostly classical and meditative, sets much of the tone of the film.
While the movie features Hollywood stars, Ben Affleck, Rachel MacAdams, and Javier Bardem, and brings out strong performances from them, their role is secondary to the scenery, the images of nature, and even many of the other actors who seem to have been selected because they have striking looks. Watching it will leave viewers confused, and while it is visually stunning, it is also hard work, and not many viewers will want to watch it the 2 or 3 times it takes to get a clearer sense of what is going on. Its self-announcements of how deep it is, and its impressionistic unconventionality risk charges of self-indulgence. The ending comes without much resolution of even the basic plot, let alone what happens to the main characters at the finish of the story.
The Blu-Ray / DVD has several extras. There is a "Making of" feature that reveals there was no script. Apparently much of the movie was improvised. The production team used Bartlesville, Oklahmoma for most of the US filming and they used many local people in the movie for the shoot. The method seems chaotic. Unfortunately, Malick does not say anything and so we have to rely on other people's impressions of his ideas.
So this is a film both mannered and natural; it invites comparisons to the work of Lars Von Trier and Werner Herzog, especially in their examination of America, and the seriousness with which the movie takes itself.
© 2014 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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