I believe that films should be able to stand up on their own, irrespective of their context or their director’s past record; if a film fails to do so, it’s flawed. However, Terrence Malick’s latest picture poses a problem I have now encountered from both angles. The first Malick film I saw was The Tree of Life, which I dismissed as pretentious and dull (and I’m an English Literature student).
My Malick-loving friend assured me, however, that this was not the case, and implored me to look at his back catalogue. I was subsequently blown away by the brilliance of Days of Heaven, Badlands,and The New World. And although To the Wonder does not reach these lofty heights, I thought it was excellent. (The friends I saw it with, being Malick-virgins, were less impressed, but understandably so.) Malick’s style can be difficult: dialogue is minimal, and the narrative is terribly oblique. He is sincere almost to the point of cliche. There are problems with the film: the voiceover is blandly aphoristic and empty, jarring with the genuine passion and beauty of the visuals, which themselves are awfully repetitive at times.
The film is too long, the absence of narrative clarity is limiting (especially in comparison to his earlier masterpieces) and there is not enough of Javier Bardem! And yet the film is fantastic. The emotions and passions on display are powerfully moving and genuine. I didn’t know why anything was happening, but that wasn’t the point; I saw and felt what was happening. In a postmodern world where irony reigns, Malick’s sincerity is bold and refreshing.