Terrence Malick has exhausted me. It's been difficult watching his last two films, hoping to see a masterpiece then trying to understand why I haven't.
Perhaps it is a lack of thrust. In his first four films--all great--consider this: in Badlands Kit and Holly go rampaging west; in Days of Heaven Bill and Abby and Linda flee west (and south); in The Thin Red Line Charlie Company steams so far west they reach the east, Guadalcanal; in The New World John Smith sails west until he finds this country.
Indeed, Kit and Bill and Pvt. Witt push on until they find death, and John Smith enters a void from which he could hardly expect to return. This reminds me of the fatalism in Liam Rector's "Song Years," they're "Going out west for, I suppose, hope."
The Tree of Life's Jack (Sean Penn) and To the Wonder's Neil (Ben Affleck), on the other hand, sit in their empty homes and workspaces and brood. The camera circles them; the camera circles their cyclical memories. They are not really named (who can forget the way Sissy Spacek says "Kit"?). I'm almost sure Affleck's character is never called Neil on screen. As I said about The Tree of Life, I'm starting to see only the gestures, however breathless.
I've read that the last two films come from Malick's own life--his childhood in Waco, his first marriage to a Frenchwoman. With my writing I've always found autobiographical stories seem easier to tell but are harder to write. Malick used other texts and historical records to untangle and remake the Western, the Great War Film, the Historical Epic--but The Tree of Life and To the Wonder orbit around Texas and Oklahoma, with occasional excursions to outer space or Mont St. Michel.
I've stopped being awestruck and started wondering what films were left on the editing table. His cuts are Fast and Furious even if his regular audience doesn't suffer from Battleship ADHD. I think back to the fluttering shot of a butterfly landing on Jessica Chastain's hand in The Tree of Life: five seconds of gorgeousness and then we snap back down the street, into the trees. I believe Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted something about Malick just rolling around in several hundred hours of film, from four or five different projects, and cutting together things he likes. I think it was a joke but a plausible one now (the credits indicate he used pieces of The Tree of Life in To the Wonder).
Malick's talent can still overwhelm--he's the greatest maker of match cuts. In To the Wonder I'm thinking of the quick transition from the thin rose in the trodden snow at the castle to the divoted, trampolining sand in the rising tide outside. I could make you scroll for minutes through stunning hi res images from this film and tell you how well they work together but the wisecracks come easily: "In his next film, will the characters be allowed to look at each other?"
We look at Olga Kurylenko even if Ben Affleck won't. Malick infuses her with a Parisian Pocahontas essence and releases her in suburbia, twirling down grocery store aisles composed by Gursky. She has some English but is so remote from Affleck that she fingerwrites her thoughts on his back, an invisible ink. She brings her daughter to live with Gentle Ben for unknown reasons--there's no backstory because it's inconceivable that these two people are together. Things are not perfect in her new, distressingly empty McMansion though we feel that everything could have been prevented if she'd been a better home decorator (in her defense: she is a highly skilled hair braider).
One of my favorite moments in the film is when a Kurylenko voiceover introduces us to Rachel McAdams. Malick has made the latter handsomely blonde for the film--her eyes are cornflower, her attire Carhartt. McAdams is allegedly a childhood friend of Affleck's (of the two she's held up significantly better) and they have a great first date in the buffalo, like a tease for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. McAdams says sexy things to Affleck like, "I want to be your wife," but she's picked up and discarded with attention you might pay to your weekly living room bouquet.
When Mr. Affleck looks back at this role (shielding his eyes from a mantelfull of Best Director Oscars, no doubt) he might wonder if it would have been better to be cut completely (as Michael Shannon was). Ben could have been the second unit cameraman he got to play in the smart phone photography of the opening section. His role is analogous to Sean Penn's in The Tree of Life, just watching along with us. Affleck is at his most noticeable during a love scene with Kurylenko--he wears a bicep tattoo so bad it distracts from her nudity. The longest statement he makes aloud is something pedantic about the shadow of the earth coloring the sunset, spoken to a 10-year-old French girl who doesn't understand him.
I was pleased that Malick did shoot at a Sonic Drive-In (twice!) and unsurprisingly Affleck doesn't quite know what to order--he's probably torn between All-American Dog or French Toast Sticks.
About Javier Bardem's small town priest (who might as well have been from Mars) I can hardly comment...he is beautifully ugly as always, and looks at ugly people shot beautifully.
Kit wants to see the end of the road, Bill wants to see farmland far away from a steel mill, Pvt. Witt wants to see a Melanesian utopia, Pocahontas and John Smith want to see rituals and landscapes no one in their culture have ever conceived. Affleck and Kurylenko and McAdams and Bardem want to seem themselves in a Terrence Malick film.
This is a phenomenon I've thought about more and more...I recently tweeted about Anne Carson's personal happiness leading to a precipitous dive in my engagement with her writing. And there's the case of Thomas McGuane, whose out-of-control youth gave us the wild and woolly novels The Sporting Club, The Bushwhacked Piano, Ninety-Two in the Shade and Panama. His sobriety has given us complacent novels and stories about the fishing and fucking of middle-aged Montana cattlemen.
And so Malick leaves us at the exterior steps to an Oklahoma motel instead of outside Mont Saint Michel. Oh well.
All this whingeing aside...I'm glad Malick is working. It is far more important that a legendary artist continue working than it is for me to like what he does. I hope that after this series of films he has one more new direction.