To the Wonder (USA) Directed by Terrence Malick Written by Terrence Malick Starring Olga Kurylenko; Ben Affleck; Javier Bardem; Rachel McAdams; Tatiana Chiline; Romina Mondello; Charles Baker;
Reportedly based on personal experience, Terrence Malick’s elegiacal tone poem is a dreamily photographed (by the uber talented Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki) meditation on loneliness, connectivity, and romantic love. Freed from the constraints that normally dictate the general course for pretty much every other director working in mainstream American cinema, Malick is able to layer his impressionistic renderings with all the voice-over, classical music, and dialogue free imagery he pleases, employing his customary back-lit exteriors, low angles, and roving steadi-cam to evoke the beauty of wide landscapes, architectural design, elements of nature, erotic lovemaking, and human faces bathed in dappled shards of light streaming from the setting and rising sun.
With Malick doing present day for the first time, the film begins in Paris with the achingly lovely Marina (Olga Kurylenko) spending time with Neil (Ben Affleck). As Marina speaks in intermittent voice-over, enigmatically (and often simplistically) ruminating on the nature of love and their moments together, we observe the two as they spend time seeing the local sites (notably, the castle at Mont St. Michel), lying next to one another in loving embrace, laughing, running, and gazing into one another’s eyes. We soon meet Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), who accompanies the couple on some of their excursions. Eventually, the nearly silent Neil asks Marina and Tatiana to return to his Oklahoma home with him.
In the United States, we immediately get more of the same types of visuals, save the different, rural landscape of the American west. Scene after scene of gorgeous, lovingly delivered moments consisting of the de facto family interacting with one another. But life soon begins to creep in, and so do the strip malls, cookie cutter suburban neighborhoods, and fast food restaurants (though Lubetzki and Malick still extract beauty) that help define the environs. There are almost no traditional scenes of full dialogue, but as Neil moves through his barely furnished home it becomes clear that he is less than satisfied with the arrangement. Eventually, Marina (who doesn’t work) and Tatiana (an outcast at school) too begin to feel the lacking of something deeper (from Neil/the situation), an emptiness that they can neither refute nor completely define, but one that infects the household.
The story widens as Marina and Tatiana exit and another beautiful woman, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend of Neil’s who is also a single mother, enters into a sexual relationship with him. The time-line is not crystal clear, and we cannot definitively discern when this relationship is taking place (present? past?), but either way it is obvious that Neil has real difficulty connecting with others. Solipsistic and uneasy, he was/is either not in love with these two women and/or is overwhelmed by the existential angst enveloping him.
There is also a social realist/humanistic element added to the mix as Neil’s job involves inspecting work sites/testing chemicals in the land around the homes of some impoverished local residents, and we hear these people speak in bits and pieces about their health problems and living conditions. This is the same community that Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), ministers to, and the connection between he, Marina, and Neil is strengthened slightly by the fact that the couple are both Catholics who attend his church (Marina also sees him for confession).
All of these lead characters are suffering from some sort of spiritual malaise, and in each case the problem has something to do with an inability to connect on a deep level. Neil seems to have serious issues with communication and intimacy; Marina has had trouble loving men who do not seem to return this love with equal intensity; Jane has been similarly let down in her relationships; and despite his obvious good deeds and intellectual wisdom, Father Quintana seeks a more palpable connection to the God he has devoted his life to.
Malick manipulates our sensory perceptions to assist in demonstrating how far removed his characters are from being truly, viscerally present in the day-to-day world. People speak to his lead characters, but their voices are muted. It is if his leads are perpetually floating, and therefore the sounds of other voices (the ones not in their heads) are drowned out by an overwhelming din of dread/anguish/self-involvement. Marina, Neil, Father Quintana, and Jane all seem to be the kind of people who are perpetually lost in thought, living inside their heads, and mired in a kind of philosophical quest to quench the emptiness and longing that plagues them.
Unfortunately, because all of the main characters experience the world in this way (keep in mind actors like Rachel Weisz; Jessica Chastain; Amanda Peet; Michael Sheen; and Barry Pepper were all exorcised from the final cut), the entire proceedings seem to be mired in a dreamworld and there is little to butt up against it - at least anything that pierces their individual haze. This lack of texture means that the film plays out without this way of existence being called into question or challenged in any real way, and whether intentional or not this has the effect of minimizing the others (the poor; the ugly; the elderly masses who rotate around them) as if they were not actual human beings. The only brief antidote to the thick fog of malaise comes from an overwritten speech by Marina’s friend Anna (Romina Mondello in a cameo) who forcefully argues against allowing the world to envelop you; insists Oklahoma is dead; and tries to convince Marina she needs to live in the moment, to be light, to do what makes her happy no matter what.
To the Wonder is a work of art, and while it is certainly more narrowly focused than Tree of Life, the films’ admittedly enticing opaqueness also assists in keeping it from greatness. Missing from the finished product are those scenes that might have penetrated our psyche in a deeper way and/or illuminated something revelatory about human nature. While the voice-over has it’s moments, too much of it feels trite, repetitive, and obvious. Malick is often content to let the images and sentence fragments stand on their own and does not feel particularly compelled to explain or allow us any further in by more deeply penetrating these individuals and their core relationships.
As much as he is a maker of narrative film, Malick is a poet, philosopher, and painter, and as such trades principally in metaphor and imagery, prompting us to bring our own life experiences to bear to connect the dots for ourselves. He is a singular talent with the ability to help redefine cinema, but as exquisite as this film is, in the world of narrative movie-making To the Wonder is like an undeniably great painting delivered by an artist who died before its completion.