When you give a philosopher a camera, you have to expect a product that defies (or otherwise transfigures) convention. And if that convention is film-making, you may come up with something that very closely resembles Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. Anyone familiar with Malick’s previous works knows that the eccentric writer/director has a tendency to employ unique methods of story-telling, and is notorious for avoiding a straight-through easy-to-digest movie-watching experience. To The Wonder is no exception; it demands something of the viewer that isn’t always easy to do. You have to let go of your preconceptions about film, and give up that sense of control over what you’re watching – and once you do that, it’s impossible to develop an immediate opinion about it.
Visually, this is a stunning masterpiece (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of Malick’s other works like Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life). It’s not only the aesthetic of the huge horizons, swaying grasses, and Malick’s curious emphasis on water that draws us in, but the way in which these landscapes start to inhabit different metaphors for the other plots that develop between the characters. We are introduced to Neil (Ben Affleck in one of his quietest roles) who falls in love with the lovely Marina (a bewitching Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter in Paris, and then invites them to live with him back home in Oklahoma where he works as an environmental inspector. However, Marina has a hard time fitting in, and tension between the two eventually results in Marina leaving for Paris again, and Neil connecting with his old childhood flame, played by Rachel McAdams. The characters end up having to redefine or abandon some of their own perceptions about “love” when Marina finds that Paris no longer holds the charm and magic it once did and asks to return.
Considering the sparseness of dialogue, many times it feels like you could be watching a silent movie, and I think this throws some people off (one woman two rows back actually walked out). Malick, instead of using dialogue and exposition, is telling a narrative through imagery which I think invokes a lot of criticism because we aren’t used to this type of vehicle driving us through a film. The breadth of time and space that we travel through, precisely because of the lack of dialogue and focus on imagery, creates a story that is both perturbing and at times dream-like. More often than not, it feels like we’re reading the letters and diaries of these characters, and what we see on the screen is just our imagination interpreting these letters.
A picture can tell a thousand words, yes. And I think this unsettles people: they don’t want a thousand words, they don’t want the kind of subtlety that Malick is engaging with, they want something clear-cut and sharp. To Malick’s credit, he doesn’t relent to this kind of pressure.
The dialogue we do get is often terse, or in the form of cryptic and poetic voice-overs by the different characters as they try to come to terms with their own personal crises of faith. What does it mean to love, and can one survive on love alone? Kurylenko’s character embodies a childish and very French existentialist (almost Nietzscheian, at times) perspective on life – a moment is beautiful, and she lives inside each one, regardless of pain, anger, emptiness, or wonder.
It begins to lose steam, for me, towards the end, because while all the characters end up influencing one another and feel earned, we also encounter Javier Bardem’s character as a tortured priest who is losing his faith, and trying to rediscover God in the poverty and detritus of middle-America. Like the others, he too is grappling with his concept of “love” – but his story is somehow detached and separate from the rest of the movie, almost glaringly so. It doesn’t prevent Bardem from putting on a heart-breaking and inspiring performance, but we still never feel like he’s supposed to be in this movie, and as a result we’re left with a storyline that relates to the others but is regrettably vestigial.
If Malick can be accused of anything, I suppose it would have to be trying to incorporate too much of his message in too many different ways. Stick with Affleck and Kurylenko, and To The Wonder is one of the most profound and perplexing love stories you’ll watch this year.