Terrence Malik is a gifted filmmaker – there’s no question – he also has a keen eye for breathtaking visuals and cinematography whilst simultaneously sniffing out some truly unique stories with an everyday life feel, blending the cinematic splendour with real people and truly honest moments, but for his films to work, all the elements need to play along. Just like a refrain in poetry can add structure and in its reappearance drive home a point; if its faulty or rings like an annoying bell to the ear with each repetition, it could well spell the downfall of the piece. To the wonder though, has more than one glaring fault.
The PlotHowdy, Steven Benjamin
Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Niel (Ben Affleck) fall in love in Paris, but when they return to the US and Niel resumes his work in a suburban part of Oklahoma, trouble arises as it seems he has commitment issues. This goes on while their church’s Spanish-born pastor (Javier Bardem) begins to question his own faith and then Niel runs into a childhood friend (Rachel McAdams)who complicates matters further.
For those who know what to expect – so Terrence Malik enthusiasts are sure to get their fill, though anyone else may be thrown by the pacing and now trademark, though beautiful, POV visual style.
The Bottom Line
There’s definitely a story here that’s worth telling. One could easily be swept up in the visuals, but inherently there’s an honest tale here about ordinary people, the challenges they face and their awareness of something missing in their lives. Where it gets a little lost is in the exposition. This film is like a series of glimpses, fragments and photos that reveal a patchwork of several people’s experiences and how they intertwine and affect each other. I don’t mind the style but ultimately one needs a stronger semblance of the central thread which holds it all together, otherwise, as in this case, narratives lose their balance and resonance. One of the biggest faults though, is in its flaky lead character, and the casting choice thereof. They could’ve chosen many different actors, but to keep this simple, I’ll say this: they should’ve chosen Casey Affleck instead of his brother. Casey is automatically an intriguing character all on his own, naturally lending a sense that there’s something he’s not telling us, and dare I say there’d be noteworthy chemistry between him and Kurylenko. Whereas her character would lure him like a moth to a flame, McAdams’ character would serve as the soft pure foil or escape from his darker tendencies of his unexplored youth – something older brother Ben fails to communicate.
Basically Ben Affleck is a square that doesn’t fit into the curved subtly nuanced recess that has been cut out for his character. He demonstrates this over and over again. The fact is his character Niel is a simple one (with very few lines of dialogue), but the simpler the character and less verbal they are, the more the focus falls on the visual, on expressionism – embodying a character – in a performance that is driven by its physical nature – and this is where Affleck is weakest.
Olga Kurylenko is captivating and delivers a soulful performance (conversing mostly in French), and even McAdams is a pleasant distraction (even though her character isn’t explored that much) – where their characters are explained more by their environment and how they fit into it than anything they say (but they’re betrayed as they don’t bounce well enough off Affleck; which says something because Kurylenko can have chemistry with a brick wall, but not with cardboard apparently). Javier Bardem is intriguing as always, managing to draw you in just by showing up on screen. He also, by my reckoning, has some of the best scenes captured, as the resident pastor ministering to people from all walks of life. Just seeing this array of humanity, stories told in weary flesh, subtle emotions, observing an honest prayer, a child’s love for his ill mother – it’s where Malik thrives as a director and where the lines between art and reality are gloriously blurred. This is where the film is strongest, because here’s where there’s little acting and even less pretense.
As a result the film lacks balance as its central characters struggle to find their anchor within the narrative. It’s a beautiful film to look at, but I feel Malik would be well served (judging from his recent previous work – ‘Tree of Life’ with Brad Pitt) to hand his script to another prominent writer who understands him, to tweak and shift some of the elements and eliminate the weaker parts to tie things together for a more organic mosaic.
I like Terrence Malik’s vision (though it’s not always completely realised and often flawed) and I can’t wait for when he, together with a group of artists and actors who immerse themselves in it, become truly at one with that vision, to realise it in its entirety – that’s when everyone will stand still and be mesmerized… in other words, we are yet to see a Malik Masterpiece, but we can hope, because it will be a film for the ages.