The Tree of Life was fucking robbed. Yes, I’m still carrying a grudge about this. Some crimes are simply unpardonable.
I can understand denying Tree of Life its Best Picture award, ditto for Terrence Malick getting snubbed for Best Director. However much they deserved those trophies, I get that the film might have been a little too opaque for Academy voters. Frankly, it’s a miracle the film got those nominations in the first place. But to this day, I’m still fuming that Emmanuel Lubezki didn’t get Best Cinematography. Anyone with two functioning eyes could see that it was the most jaw-droppingly beautiful film released in 2011, and the Academy gave the award to Hugo?! There is no excuse. There has never been any excuse and there never will be any excuse.
In any case, I put Tree of Life down as my choice for the “#1 masterpiece” of 2011. Yes, the film was very abstract and it was paced very slowly, but it’s still one of the deepest and most thematically rich movies that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. It creatively used an intimate coming-of-age story to explore profound questions on an epic scale. It also helped that the cast was extraordinary, the music was sterling, and have I mentioned that every single frame of that movie was visually flawless?
Alas, Terrence Malick is known for taking a sadistically long time to choose, prepare, shoot, and edit his films. It could potentially have been years until his next film came out. So imagine how surprised the movie geek community was when Malick released To the Wonder two years later, with another two films in the pipeline.
Needless to say, I was very excited to see Malick’s new feature. I was so badly hoping to see another movie as thought-provoking and heart-wrenching as his previous work. And wow, were those expectations foolish.
Before going any further, I should point out that the visuals could best be described as “oh holy fuck, yes!” Once again, Lubezki proves that he is one of the most impossibly skilled and criminally underappreciated cameramen working today. Every single frame is a work of art that practically beats you over the head with how beautiful it is. Similarly, the score is nothing short of enchanting. Together, the visuals and the music in this movie are so potent that the film could have gone entirely without dialogue and it still would have been emotionally resonant. And honestly, I think I would have preferred it that way.
I didn’t learn this until after I had seen it, but the film was reportedly shot without a script. The actors improvised absolutely everything on the set. I also learned that Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet, and Michael Sheen were all cast in various roles, only for every single one of them to be cut completely out of the final film. Both of these little factoids explain so very much, in hindsight.
For one thing, the ruthless editing and the completely improvised narrative would mean a great deal of ADR in post. This would explain why half the dialogue in this film was delivered via voice-over. It would also explain why the other half was either mumbled or whispered, the better to hide the actors’ lip movements.
Additionally, a huge chunk of the dialogue is spoken in a foreign language, requiring the use of subtitles. I came to deeply appreciate this. Between the actors’ mumbled delivery and the overpowering score, I could barely hear a word being said. Depending on the quality of your theater’s sound system, the subtitled lines of dialogue may be the only ones you have any chance of understanding. Then again, the subtitled lines of dialogue are loaded with pretentious twaddle, so good luck understanding those as well!
At this point, it should come as little surprise to learn that the plot is dreadfully thin. There’s something about Ben Affleck playing a man who’s fallen in love with a French woman (Olga Kurylenko), so he brings the woman and her daughter to the States. But they don’t marry (for some reason), so she doesn’t get a green card and eventually has to go back to France. Then Affleck starts a fling with Rachel McAdams’ character until he breaks it off (for some reason) and brings Kurylenko’s character back to the States. The two of them proceed to get married (why did they wait until now?), until they grow to hate each other (why?). So the two of them divorce (entirely offscreen) and go their separate ways.
In hindsight, the plot is obviously fragmented because it wasn’t put together until the editing phase. Watching the movie without this knowledge, I felt like I was looking at a plot through the wrong end of a telescope, and pausing every so often to wipe Vaseline off the lens. It was confusing, it was emotionally distancing, and it was PAINFUL. The film is only 113 minutes long, but every second felt like hours.
Still, it’s worth mentioning that the actors all do a great job with what little they were given. Affleck and his female colleagues all do a superlative job of selling their chemistry, even without dialogue. I know it was only last week when I thoroughly dissed Kurylenko for Oblivion, and I’ll admit that she was wonderful to watch in this film, but I’m still not entirely sold on her. After all, she was working with Terrence Malik; the guy is visually gifted enough to make a puddle of horsepiss look like the blood of Christ.
Also, though the movie was made hopelessly opaque by its own editing and sound design, a few interesting thematic ideas do surface. For example, there’s the daughter of Kurylenko’s character (played by Tatiana Chiline), a young French girl who has to adapt to her new home in the States. As a result, we’ve got the standard “kid who can’t fit into a new school” conflict, which is then compounded by the standard “foreigner who can’t fit into a new country” conflict. It’s a damn shame the film did so little with that idea, because it was a very neat touch.
Then there’s the storyline of Javier Bardem’s character. He plays a priest who’s going through a crisis of faith. It’s a fascinating thing to see so many people come to him for spiritual guidance and wisdom, since we know he doesn’t really have any more answers than they do. In the end, he comes to see Christ in just about everything, using Jesus and God as metaphors for love and compassion. It’s a very intriguing notion, though it’s ultimately pushed to the wayside because Bardem’s character is so tangential to the plot. Then again, the film barely has any plot at all, so whatever.
I’m pretty sure that To the Wonder is what Tree of Life looked like to those people who hated Tree of Life. The plot to this film isn’t just half-baked, it’s freshly-picked and raw. Even worse, the dialogue is totally inaudible and the editing shows clear signs of a hatchet job. The visuals and music were both masterful enough to carry the film for a while, but they could only do so much.
Malick enthusiasts and arthouse fans might find something worthwhile here, but no one else should bother.