To the Wonder

To the Wonder ★★★½

I might have more to say about this at another time, or not; I'm really not a Malick expert. For now:

1) Well, at least they're not rolling around in the grass all the time now. Malick's self-calcification into a certain set of tics (communal voiceover aside) seems to have been broken with this film. Malick is famously interested in (or perceived as being interested in) Transcendence and Immanence on a large scale, but the emotions in To The Wonder are primarily (even ferociously) negative. The bubbling discontent throughout is mostly Olga Kurylenko's, and Malick's freakishly good at visualizing unarticulated discontent, with her lurking in suburban houses' shadows or visibly barely keeping it together during banal suburban interactions with well-meaning Oklahomans.

2) There's a certain kind of American male raised with the understanding that being a good man has a very specific trajectory: you get a business degree or something similar, get a stultifying job, marry someone as fast as possible, buy a house, raise your kids and you need to have all this done by age 30, max. Ben Affleck here both is and isn't that guy: he's chained to suburban normalcy and drawn to living in one of those godawful neighborhoods where the houses are all drawn from the same model and the sameness only ends when you hit the patches of nothingness outside the neighborhood (neither nature nor developed, a non-developed non-space), but he's also not into marriage or having children. He's a conflicting mass of unarticulated impulses, which makes total sense to me (Affleck has the quality — perfect for this — of looking very much like an Average American without straining for that appearance).

3) "Everything is beautiful here," Kurylenko's daughter says when confronted with supermarket abundance, and I don't think there's any hint of satire in Malick's treatment of normative suburban living. By virtue of being set in the present, the movie has moments that couldn't have occurred in any of his previous films, whose texture is so sharp and responsive to the normally unexamined environments on display (check out that laundromat!) it's like you haven't spent hours waiting in an exactly identical space already.

4) In the spirit of Bruce McDonald putting the footage from The Tracey Fragments online and inviting viewers to recombine them online, it'd be fascinating if Malick were to do the same at some point. (I'd be very interested in e.g. a movie about Affleck doing damage control on oil-drilling environmental fallout; certainly it'd have to be better than e.g. Promised Land.) But it's also true that Malick's idiosyncratic working methods seem to be paying off more cohesively than in The New World or The Tree Of Life; those multiple editors can accidentally stumble onto motifs and echoes throughout the sprawl of footage and make them rhyme, perceiving patterns in the chaos that one person simply couldn't.

5) I do wish they wouldn't mumble in voiceover all the time, still. I guess it's notable that the voiceover here is in three different languages, which could arguably undercut The Great Human Allness or whatever (THEY DON'T SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE EVEN AS THEY SEARCH FOR THE SAME THINGS), but it really is an affectation at this point, one of numbing vagueness. It seems to mostly arise from Malick's aversion here from anything like normal ambient sound for most of the running time; what's been sonically subtracted has to be replaced with verbal filler.

6) Automatically hypnotized by a movie where the camera doesn't stop moving, ever, and Bilge Ebiri is absolutely correct (and so helpful) to perceive that the characters here (with dialogue displaced almost entirely) relate to each other through balletic motions and changes of physical proximity rather than dialogue. But sometimes the actors move in a way that's come to seem like a distinctively Malickian gait, a slow, uncertain (almost wounded) series of motions that betray the anxiety of performers waiting for guidance; in this sense, his interest in spontaneity can be counter-productive, molding actors into uncertain players waiting on direction from an ever-mercurial director/god.

7) I think it's the negativity that really got me. The film's overlong, exhausting itself into repetition and nothingness (appropriate for the disintegration of a relationship, winding down into a voiceover-less state and resigning itself to a final static shot as if that were death itself), but it's a sharp, pointed film about (it seems to me) being in a relationship with a man who's both difficult and obdurately insistent on being totally withholding and having things happen totally on his own terms. ("Strong emotions make you uncomfortable," Kurylenko reasonably speculates in voiceover.) Malick's experiments in elision seem increasingly sophisticated to me, pared down and devoid of the New Age-y elements that were distracting/pissing me off in New World/Tree Of Life. Some feelings go nowhere productive, just becoming maddening black dogs hanging over you. To The Wonder is a thorough visual catalogue of a certain kind of suburbia, but its relationship drama project is totally different, and my initial reaction is that it's very successful at subjectively visualizing/externalizing, from multiple POVs, various forms of situational discontent.