As a fan of director Terrence Malick’s work, it might seem odd to criticize his latest film for its lack of specificity. After all, anyone versed in Malick’s recent movies would be hard-pressed to describe efforts like The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree Of Life as concrete in expression. But unlike those films, which, despite their lyrical flourishes, had a meaningful core, this cinematic tone poem to unanswered love and faith fails because its ravishing, impressionistic visuals do not convincingly echo the emotions, desires, or frustrations of actual human beings.
After falling in love in Paris and vacationing in Mont Saint-Michel, Neil (Ben Affleck) brings the ever-twirling Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) back to the United States. The trio settle into a featureless subdivision in Oklahoma, where Neil works as an environmental inspector and the women struggle with both geographic and culture shock. Marina is convinced that she can bear the emptiness of the landscape and the blandness of an American lifestyle if only Neil loves her. But that seems far from certain. He appears to doubt whether he’s made the right choice and she begins to fear that she’s made a terrible mistake. When her visa expires, Marina and Tatiana return to France. Soon after, Neil stumbles into his old flame Jane (Rachel McAdams) and before long they’re in a serious relationship. But Neil can’t help but want Marina back. And so she returns and they pick up where they left off. Only things are not as they were before.
In parallel to their story, we meet the local Catholic priest Quintana (Javier Bardem), a man struggling with his own kind of thwarted yearning. Though he diligently fulfills his duties — tending to the sick and the poor, giving sacrament, advising first Marina and then later Neil — he no longer feels the presence of God. He relentlessly searches for a hint of divine inspiration but finds only the desperate flailings of those who are lost or troubled. In To the Wonder, doubt, whether it is spiritual or romantic, becomes the defining trait of all its characters.
Narrative convention has never been one of Malick’s concerns, but here he sheds almost all externalization of thought, emotion, or action. We witness the moments that take place before or after a discussion, but never during. Neil, Marina, Jane, and Quintana are more like shadows than realized human beings, given an improvised story, few if any lines of dialog, and no specific background. Their crises of love and faith, their hunger for connection, their fear of loss and abandonment, is expressed in whispered, impossibly poetical voiceovers. Sometimes uttered as philosophical musings or Biblical passages, they sound like faint murmurings from the soul — an artistically ambitious conceit but hard to connect with in a meaningful way.
Malick’s movie is like a visual sermon, reminding us of the precariousness of the ground we tread upon. Faith, love, and nature are presented as sand beneath our feet — sometimes firm, sometimes perilously changeable.
This ecstatic approach makes Malick one of the most un-ironic filmmakers working today. His sincerity is both palpable and bold... but also his undoing at times. He repeats his intellectual and visual conceits ad nauseam and expands human expression into emotional incoherence. How many people can we follow as they walk away from us? Why is every woman in his films depicted as a knowing child? Must all our choices be connected to a larger cosmic ideal? Is every leaf on Earth so gloriously sun-dappled?
Still, there’s no getting around Malick’s ability to powerfully weave together visually resplendent and achingly intimate scenes (the best of which is Affleck and Adams sitting atop a car surrounded by buffalo). For those who embraced The Tree of Life’s kaleidoscopic ode to creation and memory, To the Wonder acts as a modern requiem to love. It may be a lesser effort, but not for a lack of vision.
Writ. and dir. Terrence Malick; feat. Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams (R)
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