[14 September 2012]
PopMatters Features Editor
To the Wonder
USA—Dir. Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick’s latest opus is a gorgeous, elliptical, dreamy collection of images, sounds and stray thoughts, murmurs of poetry and anguish, scenes of unrecoverable silence, all fitted into a loose-fitting narrative about a man (Ben Affleck), the two women he fails to love enough to make commitment work (Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko), and a Priest who has lost his faith (Javier Bardem). A darkly thoughtful meditation on trust, loneliness, freedom, individuality, and the calamitous anxiety of doubt, all interwoven with suggestions of man’s inability to live in harmony with his environment, To The Wonder is brimming with an existentialist, Kierkegaardian spirit. “How should we live?”, indeed.
Though many will be (and have been at this Festival) frustrated by the lack of hand-holding of any kind in this movie—there is very little dialogue, and what plot there is can be fitted neatly into a couple of terse sentences, all spoilers included—there is much to gain from submitting yourself to the flow of this quite extraordinary cinematic experience. There is something profoundly exhilarating about watching a tale unfold in such an unconventional way, even if there are also moments of irritation. To the Wonder is a story told in flashes of imagery, in suggestions and elisions, while all the while these purrs of enigmatic narration wash over the proceedings, offering glimpses into these unknowable people and their private crises of faith. Very little action can be said to take place in this film, and we are privy to almost no conversations of any kind; indeed, much of the film is given over to medleys of transitory shots of the characters as they wander through vast fields of wheat, struggling alone against the metaphysical questions that whisper on the breeze.
This is, then, a film that refuses some of the most basic of the grammatical rules of narrative film. It is we, the audience, who must fill in the empty spaces inside the spidery lines that Malick traces for us. There will be many for whom this is simply too much to ask, and many more who will be exasperated by the idea that a film might presume to ask this of them. But for those who are willing to submit to the trip, To the Wonder is a dizzying journey into the darkened corners of the mind, the heart, and even, possibly, the soul.
End of Watch
USA—Dir. David Ayer
Brian and Mike (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) are uniformed cops rolling around the meanest streets of a nightmarishly amoral south central Los Angeles. We follow them as they kill gangsters in gunfights, save neglected children from crack-addicted parents, discover body parts in a human chop shop. As Brian puts it, clearly bragging, they see more action in a week than most cops do in a career. Cowboys game for the chase, for the adrenaline-fueled chaos of a takedown, they don’t prevent crime so much as seek it out. However, they are earnest about their responsibilities and genuinely willing to risk their lives to save others—this is a film about gallant men in uniform, far closer in tone to Backdraft than, say, Bad Lieutenant.
End of Watch is far more interested in the extraordinary bond between these two “brothers” than anything else. A study of a deep friendship grown of a mutual need for comfort and support in the face of persistent stress and danger, End of Watch is in some ways right out of the buddy cop film playbook. But, credit the warm performances from Pena and Gyllenhaal that we are ultimately bewitched into seeing this same old story with what feel like new eyes. Before long, their frequent displays of intimate affection for one another become genuinely compelling (if a little over the top—even their colleagues, and their wives, make fun of their sexless love affair).
Meanwhile, the spare plot—they keep accidentally stumbling onto major crimes linked to a Mexican drug cartel, and the jefe puts a hit on them—is never really developed. Nor are the gangsters, who are presented as almost uniformly amoral cyphers: terrifyingly callous, ferocious, and depraved, they have no inner lives behind their sheen of bravado. There is never any ethical crisis here—there are obvious bad guys and equally obvious good guys. We are never invited to engage with complexity of any kind.
A good movie that really could’ve been great, End of Watch is a frustrating thing to sit through. The film relies on an illogical conceit—we are led to imagine that the whole movie is recorded by camcorders, lapel cams, and surveillance video, even though this often makes no sense (why would gangbangers film their own crimes? If Brian is filming his police work for a school project, shouldn’t he have to hand it in at some point?). More confusingly, this faux-found-footage conceit is often simply dropped in favour of a traditional omniscient-perspective shot. The predictable result is a whole lot of very shaky camera work; lengthy sections have the overall look and effect of having been shot on a Blackberry. This adds to the sense of anxious tension (which, by the gut-wrencher that is the climactic gun battle has become powerful indeed) and lends an air of documentarian immediacy to the proceedings, but it also makes the film pretty uncomfortable to actually watch. Which is a problem, since that’s what we’re here for.