In Terrence Malick’s latest philosophical jaunt in cinema, To the Wonder, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (French actress Olga Kurylenko) are deeply impassioned lovers that move to suburban Oklahoma, USA only to struggle with a suddenly deteriorating relationship in this new locale. There, Neil reconnects with his childhood friend and crush Jane (Rachel McAdams), and Marina visits a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem) who is having similar issues of dislocation from one’s homeland.
Like Malick’s great film The Tree of Life, and The Thin Red Line before it – the narrative unfolds as visual poetry. While the plot may have a beginning, middle, and end – it’s only for the sake of containing the content in some distributable way. Clearly, Malick and returning Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are interested most in using cinema as a tool of artistic expression and spiritual exploration. It’s beauty is undeniable, but while you will spend all the time you could ask for looking at character’s silhouettes stunningly set against magic-hour skies, it could be argued that a film owes its audience more. Unfortunately, there is not much more to be found in To the Wonder as the plot meanders and fails to connect. Even the central romance between Neil and Marina is largely ineffective despite the care you can feel was put into their motivations and short snippets of dialogue.
The film works best as an exhibit of the artistic properties of cinema. The performances are great on their own (particularly Affleck and Bardem), but they don’t work together in any satisfying way. Interpreted as a narrative film, To the Wonder will disappoint or befuddle many general audiences (there were several walkouts at my screening).
All the ingredients that have led Malick to be properly regarded as a brilliant filmmaker are present – sweeping steadicam shots, whispered monologues, and the big questions that are meant to stir in our minds after leaving the theatre. Yet even with the same technical ingredients, the film’s recipe lacks humanity, and heart. I find myself more interested in watching a film about Javier Bardem’s Spanish priest character, as it is the most intriguing and least resolved. As it is, overindulgence overshadows considerable visual delight – check out or revisit 2011’s The Tree of Life instead.
Review: To The Wonder