There must be few jobs in the film industry as simultaneously rewarding and frustrating as being an actor in a Terrence Malick film. To make it into one of his pictures at all is an achievement: Malick famously overshoots everything, finding the film later in the editing room; a young Adrien Brody believed himself to be the star of 1998’s The Thin Red Line until he got to the premiere and found his part cut down to two lines of dialogue.
It’s a trend that has carried through to his latest film To The Wonder, which somehow lost Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen on the way to the screen, along with most of Rachel McAdams’ role and almost all of the film’s dialogue.
Even when an actor does manage to survive the cutting room floor, Malick uses them essentially as props. They exist as fragments of memories, a tool Malick employs to reflect on his themes. As his associative, narrative-eschewing approach has pared further and further down to the point where To The Wonder is almost entirely voiceover, his actors are used as ciphers rather than characters whose journeys we’re meant to invest in.
The main reason actors line up to appear in Malick’s films, other than the prestige of his work and his reclusive mystique (until recently, Malick was averaging about a film per decade, with a twenty year sabbatical between 1978’s Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), is that there are simply no other filmmakers quite like him.
There are inherent dangers in being so distinctive. Like all filmmakers who are blazingly idiosyncratic, Malick’s approach is in threat of becoming overly familiar, verging on self-parody: the camera moves restlessly forward in every shot, while the voiceover – mostly from Olga Kurylenko but occasionally giving way to Javier Bardem’s lost priest – can be beautiful and profound one minute, facile the next, filled with lines like “Love makes us one. I in you.” These are usually played over scenes of Ben Affleck walking around in circles, frowning, the camera occasionally finding refuge in a puddle or leaves roused by the wind.
Even though the film is glacially slow, To The Wonder feels too short, like an hour has been cut from it. This impression is, of course, an accurate one. Malick uses nature as a mirror for humanity, but with the connective tissue of narrative removed, his lingering scenes of nature appear isolated, their significance less readily apparent.
Malick’s films, while gorgeous, moving and insightful, are philosophical explorations rather than stories told with characters and plot. When Malick’s last film The Tree of Life was released, a cinema in Connecticut put up signs warning viewers of its “uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical” content. It’s dispiriting that art house cinema has been swallowed by middlebrow independent film to the point where such a warning is necessary, but it’s a practice that To The Wonder would also benefit from. Like all of Malick’s post-sabbatical work, it’s a film that needs to find its viewer in the correct mood, which is a receptive, thoughtful, thoroughly unironic one.
For all its unevenness, To The Wonder is alive with the possibility of cinema in a way that the majority of straightforward films can only hint at. While the film remains disappointing in comparison Malick’s towering achievements, To The Wonder fails at things more conventionally satisfying films wouldn’t even dream of attempting.