Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder was the last film Roger Ebert reviewed. I don’t know if it was the last film he saw, but it is an appropriate movie to go out on. It’s full of ethereal imagery of Oklahoma fields and pretty actresses (Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, Sherlock Holmes girl Rachel McAdams) twirling in sunlight and half-kissing the somnolent male lead, Ben Affleck, and there’s a classical-rich score (Bach, Dvorak, Gorecki, etc.) appropriate for a state funeral for the world’s stuffiest diplomat. The whole thing is rather churchy, with a priest (Javier Bardem) who wanders through the, umm, “action,” kibbitzing with what look to be actual Sooner State residents, who were probably wondering when the bad guy from No Country for Old Men found God. I could feel the atheistic critics seated next to me at the press screening (I kid) writhing in their chairs, bored and uncomfortable with the movie, but no one dared leave. It’s Malick.
That said, there was an explosive rush to the door when the end credits came on. Yet a fair number of credits sitters stayed, myself included, numb, scratching our heads. What had we seen? This was beyond The Tree of Life in inscrutability, a whole arbor of quizzical life. It is for Malick what, say, Tideland is for Terry Gilliam fans, a true test of faith. To judge from its failing grade on review aggregator sites I’d say that covenant has been broken, for the first time in forty years, though I’m sure the damage is minor. More admirer than acolyte, I figured this had to happen someday, as he leaped too far beyond the bounds of conventional cinema, yet not far enough to make something that transcends it. You can’t do that with Ben Affleck.
Poor Ben. Exhibit A as an anti-Malick in terms of directorial projects, he’s been roped to act in a film that, to judge from the one expression coaxed from him, he found unfathomable. I can only imagine how they communicated on location.
Ben: So, I just keep walking through this scrubby little field, right? What’s motivating this?
Terry: You’ll know when I tell you to stop. Walk, turn, look at Rachel. Continually. Rachel, twirl.
Ben: We walked, turned, and twirled so far we walked into a herd of bison. Is that OK? Will they run? Attack…?
Terry: This isn’t Dances with Wolves. Walk, turn. Rachel, twirl. Again. Half-kiss.
I liked the bison, who seemed to understand their parts. The natural world speaks to the director as it does to no other filmmaker. With the human story lodged in Malick’s head, however, the actors are at a loss,waiting for his five editors to get at it as they murmur portentously in voiceover. To hear Wiki tell it, the film is fairly straightforward: “A romantic drama centered on an American man (Affleck) who reconnects with a woman from his hometown (McAdams) after his relationship with a European woman (Kurylenko) falls apart. The European woman later returns, but finally leaves again.” The telling, however, is elliptical, restless, searching–and confused. I half-thought the two women were two sides of one woman, given how frequently the editing mashes their stories into one another, though Malick isn’t one for Bunuelian surrealism, or comedy of any kind. This is filmmaking by wavelength, beautifully beamed at us by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and if you’re not on it, you’re off it.
Musing about the cosmic import of this or any other film isn’t my bag, so I’ll leave off with two final, positive impressions. One, I’m glad that movies like To The Wonder and Upstream Color are made; you’ll never see anything like them on TV, which in the eyes of many has trumped the cinema as a storytelling medium. That may be, but television offers little beyond traditional narrative. Two, I’m happy that after the two-decade lag between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) the seventy-year-old filmmaker has picked up the pace, and has several projects in the works. His films will endure, but he won’t, and chances are I’ll find more to embrace the next time around. If nothing else I’m delighted that Ebert saw the wonder in it.
On DVD: Cocaine, crime, guns, decadence–Easy Money returns us to the real world. Even after this and those Girl books and movies, though, I’m not convinced that this is the real Sweden. It’s more a wannabe Sweden, where everyone gets their freak on–Camden with universal health care, to aid all the victims of the drug wars that have been going on behind the world’s back for all those years. Produced in 2010 and released here to decent arthouse boxoffice last year, the film (not to be confused with the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle of the same name) stars Joel Kinnaman, who has gone on to star in The Killing on AMC and will soon be playing the rebooted RoboCop. (He was also gave the US Girl with the Dragon Tattoo some local flavor.) Kinnaman plays JW, a low-born business student with a fatal attraction for a well-off hottie, which in the Stockholm I know would mean getting a job in a bank and working hard to keep up with her needs. In the alterna-Stockholm, however, cobbling freelance income isn’t enough, so JW must get enmeshed with a mob enforcer (Dragomir Mrcic) and an escaped con (Matias Padin Varela), who use each other in their climb up the narcotics hierarchy.
“Presented by Martin Scorsese” (what, The Weinstein Company couldn’t get its usual presenter, Quentin Tarantino?) Easy Money comes to us as an attractive, barebones DVD, in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 original aspect ratio). Reasonably engrossing if overlong in that Swedish thriller way, it’s watchable if less than original, owning no small debt to its presenter. Absconding with Kinnaman from the hellhole of Sweden to the safer climes of L.A. is its director, Daniel Espinosa, who had made the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds hit Safe House before Easy Money made its US debut. With two sequels and a Hollywood remake scheduled, it’s easy money for sure.