To the Wonder
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick (screenplay)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem
To the Wonder is the quickest turn-around of the legendary auteur Terrence Malick’s career, coming out a little less than two years after 2011’s The Tree of Life. For a director who famously took 20 years after 1978’s Days of Heaven to resurface, that is quite a 180. This is also significant when examining this latest film because, though it contains moments as transcendent and beautiful as anything he’s ever done, those moments are trapped inside many less significant ones. It doesn’t feel fully formed, and though it’s by no means lazy or even bad, several parts feel out of place and sloppy.
Malick’s camera, aided by the infinitely gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, washes over any landscape with lightness and grace, tilting, panning and maneuvering around endlessly twirling and writhing bodies. He speaks a language of pure cinema, enhancing each gesture and glance with a swell of music and a matching camera movement, and then using his trademark narration to an almost entirely expressionistic effect.
Many of these rhythms are undeniably powerful and moving, but there are some scenes that Malick seems to think are beautiful that just aren’t suited to his kind of filmmaking. These all take place, like much of the movie does, in Oklahoma, after Neil (Ben Affleck) brings the French woman Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter (Tatiana Chilline) back with him from Paris. There are scenes in a supermarket and in barren backyards and wheat fields that break up what Malick seems to be trying to do, and it’s these long stretches that bear down on the movie even if they don’t ruin it.
At about the halfway point, Marina is mysteriously traded for a blonde woman named Jane (Rachel McAdams) after her visa expires and she must return to Paris. Malick blends present and past so fluidly in these segments that it becomes somewhat disorienting, though it’s not as grandiose as his Big Bang detour in The Tree of Life. Boiled down in simple narrative terms, though, it’s pretty much another tale of a stoic, troubled man having a ‘brunette v. blonde’ crisis. Of course, boiling a Malick film (or any film) down to just the storyline is absurd, and virtually all of the pleasures this film has to offer are in the gentle yet emotionally complex observations it makes simply by dancing around these people.
Perhaps the most discordant detour To the Wonder makes is in granting the movie a heavy-handed Christian underpinning in the form of a conflicted priest (Javier Bardem) living in the same Oklahoma town as the lovebirds. Malick is definitely one of the most spiritual filmmakers working today, but that old time religion becomes somewhat troubling when Neil is allowed to gyrate and frolic with two beautiful women while Marina’s affair toward the end is made sleazy and guilt-ridden.
Spirituality can be a beautiful thing on film, and in Malick’s it often is. But this troubling detour as well as a few rough patches make To the Wonder by far the weakest one he’s ever made. There are passages that are burned into my memory forever, like Marina and Neil’s initial time together in Paris touring churches and walking on an impossibly beautiful beach. There are also passages that involve a grimy Oklahoma highway and an Econo Lodge sign, weighted with that ugly moral implication that a liberated female attains no grace.