Monday, May 6, 2013

Malick's Latest Vision

Perhaps only Terrence Malick - working with his supremely gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - could make a laundromat seem otherworldly. That is one of the striking images that give Malick's latest work To The Wonder, a dreamlike quality, something the director displays in all of his films. This film continues the reflectiveness of his last work The Tree of Life (2011), especially on a religious note, although without the operatic qualities of that opus, preferring instead to focus on male/female relationships. If the film does not have the structure of the director's finest films such as Days of Heaven, Badlands or The Thin Red Line, this is nonetheless, another moving study of the power of imagery from perhaps the most visually gifted filmmaker working today.

The focus of this film is about a couple Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who fall in love in France, as Neil is visiting there. She decides she prefers to live in America with him, so along with her young daughter (Tatiana Chiline), she shifts her surroundings from the mystic qualities of her homeland (visually represented by the famed Mont Saint-Michel church, situated on an remote island in Normandy) to the golden plains of Oklahoma, where Neil works for an oil company.

I won't delve into the plot details; there are problems that Neil and Marina encounter soon afterwards; both have affairs. The scenes with Neil and his new love Jane (Rachel McAdams) are shot with more intensity and a sense of beauty than the rather straightforward affair between Marina and a carpenter (Charles Adams) who catches her eye. There is a scene where Neil and Jane are walking through the plains and are suddenly surrounded by dozens of bison; this is one of the most unexpected and stirring visuals in any of Malick's films.

There is also a subplot about a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who preaches love and understanding on Sunday to his flock in Oklahoma, but at the same time is questioning his own faith. While this subplot does not seem all that necessary to the film, the message with this character - as well as almost all the individuals of this film - is that they yearn to feel necessary; they want a connection to someone, some place.

This uncertainty of life, of facing what's ahead, was a primary theme of Malick's last film, The Tree of Life. That film, which dealt with everything from creation to the inhuman jungle of skyscrapers and corporate towers that dehumanize us, was a "bigger" film than Into The Wonder, a fact not lost on the critics of the director's latest film; for them, this new work is a disappointment. Yet I throughly enjoyed the film and if it isn't the best thing Malick has done, well, even a second-tier Terrence Malick film - one filled with stunning images as well as inspiring choices of music - is still a rewarding experience, one far more inventive and arresting than just about anything else being made today.