Title: To The Wonder
Genre(s): Drama, Romance
Director(s): Terrence Malick
Release Year: 2013
With 2011’s The Tree of Life, I was completely confused by the positive reception it had received. It felt like a Terrence Malick film, designed only for Terrence Malick to enjoy. With To The Wonder, nothing has changed, except that Malick has eradicated any interesting ideas from his previous film and boiled it down to one over-arching theme: love. How does that love manifest itself? Where can we find it? Is it guaranteed that we will find it? Unfortunately for To The Wonder, it is too broad of a topic and most of the characters are not developed enough to truly appreciate their situations. Because of this lack of development, the film ultimately becomes a series of beautifully shot scenes, that are just as enigmatic and ambiguous as love itself.
Following a handful of different characters, To The Wonder utilizes each one to portray some aspect of love. Olga Kurylenko plays Marina, a woman in France who has fallen in love with Neil (Ben Affleck) and decided to follow him back to Oklahoma to try and start a life there with her daughter. Neil is reclusive in manner, talking very little and tries to avoid being too emotional. In fact, very rarely do you actually see Neil’s face, where most often the camera will only make its way up to his mouth, but more often focusing on his back. So even if Affleck was acting, Malick wasn’t having it. However, though Marina feels like the main character, Neil is the one who we follow more often, even though he primarily just drifts in and out of scenes. There’s also a priest (played by Javier Bardem) who is having problems instilling faith in his patrons because of his own lack of love for what he’s doing. He has so many questions for God, and he sees so much turmoil going on around him that he can’t seem to be hopeful.
Bardem and Kurylenko are great, but Affleck is given very little room to act, so it’s hard to say whether he was good, or just there. Rachel McAdams shows up for a small chunk of the movie as one of Neil’s childhood friends, Jane, but the same problems which arose between Neil and Marina, occur again with her and Neil. It feels like To the Wonder is trying to place focus on the relationship between Neil and Marina, however Neil’s disconnected self removes any enjoyment from their story. More often than not, I was infuriated with the film because problems could be solved if Neil said a word or two. I think that’s the problem with the movie overall though, as Malick decided to use very little dialogue in an almost 2-hour movie. Instead, there’s a heavy emphasis on the kind of imagery you expect from a Terrence Malick film, with a setting that feels very much like Days of Heaven, and compositions that also feel extremely reminiscent. The cinematography is, as always, extremely beautiful with lots of shots of animals and nature acting upon one another by Emmanuel Lubezki (who previously worked on The Tree of Life and is the Director of Photography for the director’s other future films).
However, the imagery becomes one of the few highlights of the movie, and it’s not something that can hold the viewers attention. Instead of dialogue, a lot of what is said is through narration. Different characters read passages from a poem as the point of view focuses on them. It’s an oddly beautiful concept, but after the first 30 minutes, the movie exhausts any interest there was and doesn’t try to pull you back in. Utilizing a lot of classical music, the film’s soundtrack adds to the beauty of the film, and displays just how broken the lives are of our main characters, but none of it adds to the entertainment value of the film. Should we be going to Malick movies for entertainment though? I think films like the Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven are able to balance excitement with beauty, and even The Tree of Life had its moments of genuine intrigue.
Unfortunately with To The Wonder, we’re watching a relationship crumble and reappear, something that no one in the audience of a Terrence Malick film will not have seen before. The beautiful compositions which Malick has crafted are engaging for a little while, but once the novelty wears off, it’s easy to understand that this is not a conventional film. It is a poem, but because of the structure and extremely ethereal sense it has, the movie is not able to be carried by its beauty alone. There needs to be something fresh, something which deserves exploration, and the movie focuses on the elements that feel like a rehash of previous Malick films. Had the priest been an emphasis, or even Neil’s character and why he is so distant, then maybe there would be something worthwhile from To The Wonder. As it stands, however, the film is a retreading of everything that makes Malick movies inaccessible to mainstream audiences, complete with some of the most beautiful imagery that will be seen this year.