Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" achieved quite a distinction at its North American premiere Monday night in Toronto: At a festival full of odd and potentially divisive films that left viewers and reviewers saying "I need to see it again," "To the Wonder" definitely became the I-need-to-see-it-againiest.
A loose memory fantasia that dispenses with extraneous things like dialogue and narrative, the film is even less linear than "The Tree of Life," with Ben Affleck having fewer audible lines of dialogue than any leading man since Jean Dujardin in "The Artist.
It wasn't always thus: At the post-screening Q&A, actresses Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams both talked somewhat sadly about the extensive (and in some cases talky) footage left on Malick's cutting room floor.
The famously reclusive Malick himself, of course, was not in attendance to explain himself, though he did send his wife, "Ecky" (Alexandra) — an appropriate emissary, since the movie was reportedly based on Malick's own relationships.
But anybody expecting to glean much biographical detail from "To the Wonder" will no doubt be disappointed. And Ecky Malick didn't offer any either, simply pointing out that her husband sent "salutes to the men and hugs to the women," and then saying that he loves Canada and that the two of them considered becoming Canadian citizens after 9/11.
Based on "To the Wonder," though, the director resides in an entirely different place: Malick-Land, a parallel universe where the plains are windswept, everybody lives in the suburbs and people walk slowly and gaze soulfully and never speak to each other when they can convey their thoughts in voiceover instead.
It is a gorgeous place, a deeply if vaguely spiritual one, and at times an infuriating one, particularly since "To the Wonder" unfolds like an entire movie told in the style of the Sean Penn scenes in "The Tree of Life." (I loved that movie, but the Penn portion was not a highlight.)
The film dwells on the two women in the Affleck character's life, but the story is told in glances and landscapes and the barest fragments of scenes; early reports that Affleck only has seven audible lines are exaggerations, but I didn't count any more than 25.
It's the kind of movie that requires surrender while it's on and thoughtful meditation afterward; one expects that Malick is wholly unconcerned with nagging stuff like "what woman having an extramarital afternoon liaison would walk slowly and soulfully through the parking lot of the local Econo-Lodge motel rather than ducking into the room quickly so she isn't spotted?"
Mysterious and impressionistic and, at times, breathtaking, the film initially feels less substantial than "Tree of Life"; this is a work where the diminishing returns of the Malick approach have begun to appear. But that could be a hasty judgment on a filmmaker who deserves anything but hasty judgments.
In the Q&A afterward, Kurylenko and McAdams both seemed a little taken aback by the final version of the film, which was clearly far different from the movie they thought they were making.
Then again, what did they expect from a director known for his famously probing, experimental and cerebral approach, and dramatic editing that often eliminates entire performances?
The honor roll of those who worked on "To the Wonder" but aren't visible onscreen includes Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen.
"He could make a much darker movie from everything in his possession," said Kurylenko, who added that her character was more violent, destructive and emotionally disturbed in many of the scenes that were shot but not used. "There's a completely different story out there, too."
She also laughed about the director's technique. "Terrence told me how silence is so much stronger than words," she said. "I'd start delivering lines, and he'd say, 'Shhh, don't speak.'
"'Don't speak? You just gave me 30 pages of dialogue this morning!'"
Other Monday debuts in Toronto include "Hyde Park on Hudson," "The Iceman," "Arthur Newman" and others. TheWrap will have more on those films in subsequent reports.