If the films of Terrence Malick didn’t already divide you, 2011’s The Tree of Life took care of that. It was the most abstract work yet by an artist with a poetic storytelling quality all his own, a movie that affirmed a cinematic master’s genius for some and prompted exasperated walkouts for others. The Tree of Life was evocative enough for me to mostly get behind it, but I must confess that Malick’s latest — To the Wonder — totally lost me. As with all of his features, this is a gorgeous film laid out in a way that you really don’t see often. But this time, Malick’s fascination with showing the beauty in all he sees around us gets the best of his characters, rendering them not human beings but devices to recite stilted dialogue better suited for open mic night at the Java Hut.
Neil (Ben Affleck) lives in Oklahoma. Marina (Olga Kurylenko) lives in France. While on holiday in Paris, the two meet, aimlessly walk around like only people in arthouse movies do, and fall in love. So strong is their romance that Neil offers to move Marina and her young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), back to the U.S. with him. The offer is accepted, and soon, Marina is cavorting in wheat fields, dizzy with affection for her new man. But it’s not long before her cooling relationship with Neil and Tatiana’s difficulty in adapting to America sends Marina moseying on back to Europe. However, she’s not permanently out of the picture, for just as Neil starts reconnecting with a childhood friend (Rachel McAdams), she experiences a chance of heart and ponders returning to her former love.
On a number of fronts, To the Wonder is unusual for a Terrence Malick joint. It’s the fastest he’s followed up his previous film (arriving in theaters just two years after The Tree of Life), it’s set entirely in the present day, and, strangest of all, it hasn’t been a smash with critics. I’ve heard some of Malick’s detractors ask what makes To the Wonder so different, seeing as how it’s undeniably Malick in structure, but it comes down to a matter of relatability. The Tree of Life threw in dinosaurs and all manner of cosmic visuals, but keeping it grounded were scenes meant to empathize us with the characters, to remind us of the highs and lows we experienced in our own childhoods. The trouble with To the Wonder is that no one ever feels like they’re actual people. I anticipated artistic license to be taken and the ensemble cast to act more wistful than is socially acceptable, but it’s taken to such an extreme here, almost everyone’s humanity is outright robbed. For a film so based in emotions, it really doesn’t impart any understanding as to what makes its characters tick, leaving what I assume to be its most raw and revealing moments feeling like spaz attacks that come out of nowhere.
To the Wonder‘s woes are through no fault of the performers, who seem entirely at the mercy of Malick’s liberal editing techniques. You can see what attracted actors like Affleck, McAdams, and Javier Bardem to the project, but the results are a hodgepodge of disconnected monologues and vague narration that make most of them look utterly lost. Kurylenko particularly comes across as outright schizophrenic, what with Marina’s countless unexplained mood swings and chronic Stare-Into-the-Distance Syndrome. Malick spends more time having Marina’s voiceovers tell us how much she loves Neil and how dazzled she is with the world than showing us evidence of why she thinks so or what sets off her violent fits. Affleck tries but doesn’t fare much better, as his near-catatonic Neil barely croaks out a word or relay any insight about his own mindset, and McAdams is virtually a non-presence with no bearing on the drama whatsoever. Only Bardem, as a self-doubting priest, is on the right track in rooting out what wisdom he can in a picture that often feels jumbled up for the sake of being jumbled up.
It’s a hollow disappointment, yes, but To the Wonder isn’t without merit. Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is absolutely incredible, and despite Malick emerging as his own worst enemy in terms of conveying his themes, you occasionally capture hints of a deeper story about how we deal with reality’s harshness that you wish it ended up telling. My inner snob has stuck up for Malick a number of times, but with To the Wonder, the man’s on his own.