I went into To the Wonder with hopeful expectations. I felt moved by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and its take on life and death and mourning with grace. It made for an abstract viewing experience, but it also dealt with such sublime encounters in a respectful and beguiling manner while not forgetting the humanity in its main characters. I had hoped To the Wonder would offer a similar statement about love. Instead, it has some archaic message about marriage under God. But, even worse, the journey never feels compelling. I felt the film rush by with one redundant, brief scene after another on a path to a sloppy, hollow end that reeked of contrivance. The precarious edge Tree of Life teetered on, To the Wonder plunges over.
Before the film derails, however, the first few minutes feel promising. Grainy, saturated home video of a train trip in France featuring the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) is juxtaposed with wide Paris cityscapes. Speaking in French she says, in voice-over, “A spark. I fall into flame.” Brief sentences. Pregnant with impressionistic poetry. Intimacy captured in a moment when he holds her hair. She doesn’t flinch. However, problems began to arise not long into the film. There’s a distance between the camera lens and the actors. Emmanuel Lubezki has shot amazing work for many well-known directors. He has long proven himself a capable cinematographer, and he comes through in To the Wonder. There are beautiful moments of light and shadow throughout the film, beyond scenes shot during the magic hour, a light that has obsessed Malick from the start of his career as a filmmaker. However, the issue lies in the content of the shots and how Malick has contextualized them via the cutting room. Many shots of Neil focus on his back. If Marina faces the camera, it’s only to twirl away from it, her arms outstretched to the sky in one scene after another. If that’s a representation of a woman in love, I know a few women who will take offense to that, if not laugh it off.
It’s scenes like these — which are repeated, no less — instead of the powerful complexity of scenes in Tree of Life, like when the father tries to teach his son how to fight and hugs him after yelling at him “hit me!” capturing the bitter pull and tug of love and hate between son and father that seems amiss throughout To the Wonder. It feels as though Malick did a rush job in the editing room, without enough consideration to the performances. It does a disservice to the acting and character motivation.
Neil ends up moving Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from France to his hometown in Oklahoma, which, as revealed by his first voice-over he seems more romantically in love with than the foreigner he plants there. “Honest. Rich,” he says. However, as his job seems to involve him testing the soil on farms, he soon learns the land he seems to revere is actually poisonous. Any sympathy for the man is diffused by his cold, distant looks to Marina’s attempts at seduction. Her daughter shares her own frustration with trying to fit in at school. “Mom, we have to leave. There’s something missing,” she says in French (she might as well also be talking about the movie). After her tourist visa expires she tells him, “We have to face the facts.” When he refuses to marry her, she is obligated to return to France. He then falls for a childhood friend, Jane, (Rachel McAdams). “She hadn’t changed. Kind,” Neil says in voiceover. Still, even in Paris, Marina pines for this man, and you wonder why. But in Oklahoma, now Jane twirls in the fields, arms outstretched to the sky.
A parallel to this story is that of a Spanish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who Marina bonds with as a fellow exile. Meanwhile, his voiceover is full of doubt, as he carriers out charity work. “How long will You hide?” Statements like that are coupled with declarations like, “There is love between a husband and wife.” A wedding does eventually occur, but inside a courthouse. Men in handcuffs sign as witnesses. These abstract, loosely connected scenes are building toward something rather archaic in message while contrived in form. Worst of all, it feels too definitive and preachy for Malick.
Although the images continue to enchant, the actors feel like props, which takes out the human experience of love. The scenes feel like misshapen puzzle pieces forced to fit together, and the dramatic arc lacks the substance in performance and character development to carry you along. When the tidy ending arrives after creating such a complicating setup among people, it betrays the spirit within a person. Malick’s reach is so wide, the film really feels like he has concocted something out of nothing. If love were only about God, then fine, but anyone who has been in love knows that the sublime lies within them as well as outside.
To the Wonder is in English, French and Spanish with English subtitles, runs 112 minutes and is rated R. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 3. The film also opens in South Florida at O Cinema, beginning May 9 and the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, where it will begin its run May 10. It arrives in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso on May 24. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line preview screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).