Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Neil), Olga Kurylenko (Marina), Javier Bardem (Father Quintana), Rachel McAdams (Jane), Charles Baker (Charles), Romina Mondello (Anna), Tatiana Chiline (Tatiana)
Terrence Malick has always been different from most filmmakers. Throughout his career, every film he has made moves further away from a traditional narrative than the one before it – culminating with 2011’s The Tree of Life, a masterpiece that felt like the film Malick had been building towards for his entire career. After a very quick turnaround, at least in Malick’s world, he finished his follow-up – To the Wonder – just over a year later. The two films share a lot in common – a lot of sweeping landscape shots, not a lot of dialogue, lots of whispered voiceovers. But To the Wonder is a smaller, simpler film than The Tree of Life. That film combined the epic with the intimate, and was one of the few films ever made that tried to capture the totality of human existence – starting with the big bang, going through evolution, and then capturing the life of a child and his family from birth to the afterlife. The Tree of Life was, simply put, a huge film and one of the most ambitious films a mainstream American filmmaker has ever made. To the Wonder doesn’t have such epic concerns on its mind. Instead, its narrative is simple really – the story of a doomed love affair.
The film opens with Ben Affleck’s Neil in Paris, falling in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and bonding with her young daughter Tatiana (Tariana Chilline). These scenes have a simple beauty to them – nothing is really said, because nothing needs to be said. These two are in the first blush of romance, where everything seems idyllic and perfect, and you cannot imagine that anything will ever go wrong. But this cannot last, we know even if the characters don’t, and when Neil asks Marina and Tatiana to move with him back to Oklahoma, we know things aren’t going to be as perfect there.
Most of the movie takes place in a small, rural town in Oklahoma, and for a while it seems, like this idyllic romance will last. But Marina gets restless – there is nothing but open spaces around her, and very little for her to do. At first, Tatiana is thrilled by everything around her – even a trip to a bright, fluorescent lighted supermarket seems like an adventure to her, but soon she starts complaining that she has no friends. No one likes her, and she’s all by herself. Neil and Marina start fighting. When her visa expires, it seems only natural for her to return to France – we think this chapter in their lives is over, but it is not. Marina is even more miserable in Paris – she cannot find a job, Tatiana has moved in with her father, and she’s alone and desperate – and so she comes back to America, and she and Neil get married – we know, and I think they do too, that this marriage is doomed from the start.
Had Malick simply stuck with this story of two people in a doomed relationship, To the Wonder could have been a wonderful, small example of pure cinema. Not as ambitious as The Tree of Life, or perhaps even any of this other films, but a beautiful, perfect little film in its own right. In its way, the familiar narrative of To the Wonder helps the film – we don’t necessarily need to hear the conversations between these two characters, because we already know what they’ll say to each other. The performances by the two leads are wonderful in their own quiet way as well. Affleck, like Colin Farrell or Christian Bale in The New World, seems to have been cast more for his physicality than anything else. He seems bigger here than I have ever seen before – imposing. He is in no way abusive, but we know he never really opens up either – preferring to spend time by himself, walking, or simply sitting back and listening as Marina goes off on him. There is also a darkness in him, that is never fully explored – which is somewhat disappointing. He is a passive man, unable to verbalize what he wants – which makes him the perfect character for this movie. But the real star here is Kurylenko, who is beautiful in the film, but also gives the impression of being slightly unhinged. Unlike Affleck, she lives in the moment – allows whatever emotion she is feeling at the time take over. It’s this impulsiveness that attracts Neil to her in the first place – but what will ultimately drive him away as well. Affleck needs to be this silent, this still, for her performance to have the impact it does.
Unfortunately however, Malick decided to add two subplots to To the Wonder that ultimately detract from his simple narrative. When Marina goes back to Paris mid-film, Neil moves on with his life, and falls in love with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman he knew as a teenager, and who he reconnects with. This is really more of an interlude than a subplot, as their entire relationship begins, flourishes and ends within 10 minutes, and then Jane is never seen again. This relationship cannot have the emotional impact that Malick wants it to have, because it feels rushed. Plus, how are we supposed to know that this relationship, which Malick sees only as perfection until Affleck, driven by guilt, goes back to Marina, wouldn’t have imploded the way the central relationship does? Afterall, they relationship between Neil and Marina seemed perfect too for a while – and one of the characters is still the same in this relationship –the silent, passive, brooding Neil.
The bigger problem though is Javier Bardem’s subplot. Bardem plays Father Quintana, who like Marina, is another foreigner trapped in rural Oklahoma. Quintana is struggling with his faith, doesn’t know if he still believes. He tries to connect with the people in his parish, but he doesn’t seem able to. Their messy lives are mirrored by their messy houses and lawns, and he feels no connection to them. Malick almost seems to be looking down on these poor, working class people, and these scenes left a bad taste in my mouth. Anyone who saw The Tree of Life knows about Malick’s religiousness – and here he seems to be trying to connect faith and love, but it never really gels. Considering Malick apparently cut out several other subplot – Rachel Weisz and Amanda Peet are among the actors who received the Adrian Brody treatment - he probably should have cut this one to. Whatever he was trying here, doesn’t work.
So To the Wonder is Malick’s most problematic film – his one film that doesn’t achieve the heights Malick was reaching for. That doesn’t mean though that To the Wonder isn’t still a very good little film in its own right. What Malick is attempting, few if any other mainstream American directors would even consider trying. And when To the Wonder works – and since most of the movie concentrates on Affleck and Kurylenko’s relationship most of the movie does work – it is a beautiful film, one that you have to let wash over you. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is once again magical, as it drifts along the fields of Oklahoma, or through the mainly empty house shared by Affleck and Kurylenko. Malick is one of the few filmmakers who truly trusts his audience – who he insists that you meet him halfway, and go along for the journey with him. I know that despite the fact that The Tree of Life was 2011’s most critically acclaimed film, that many audience members hated the film – were bored and confused by it. And if you were one of those people, there is no reason why you should see To the Wonder – you’ll hate this one too. But if you are a Malick fan, and I am, than To the Wonder is a must see – a beautiful, if flawed, little film. When the film works, it is simple perfection. I just wish Malick had have been a little less ambitious this time around. The movie doesn’t need all the stuff Malick tries to cram into it.