There was a strange atmosphere in the festival line going into To the Wonder, the latest film by acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick. Despite being Malick’s follow-up film to last years, critically acclaimed Academy Award nominee The Tree of Life, there was an odd mixture of anticipation and hesitation in the air. The fact that Malick normally does not produce films this close together, coupled with the negative buzz from Venice, left many unsure what type of film they would be experiencing?
The film follows a stoic American man, Neil (Ben Affleck), who falls for a single mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), while visiting Paris. The pair frolic around the Parisian landscape in ultimate harmony of love and nature. Neil eventually asks Marina and her daughter to move to the States. While their love affair is passionate at first, the fact that Marina’s visa is running out and Neil shows no intentions of marrying her drives a wedge between them. After numerous arguments, the couple is forced to separate for a period of time.
Soon after Neil gets involved with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman that he knew in his youth. While Marina is a free-spirited dreamer, Jane is far more serious due to the heavy emotional baggage she carries. Over time Jane opens herself up to Neil and feels a genuine closeness to him. However, similar to his relationship with Marina, Neil’s fear of commitment, in the biblical sense, hinders that relationship as well. Before long, Marina finds herself back in the picture and the tumultuous romance between her and Neil begins to spiral out of control once again.
To the Wonder is a film that uses Neil’s relationships with both women as a vessel to explore the themes of love, fear, and faith within mankind. The film features very little dialogue and the bits of dialogue that do exist are often drowned out by the heavy score. This provides the film with a somewhat mystical feel. Malick lays down the framework, but leaves all the heavy lifting to the audience. This would be fine had the framework been a little more challenging.
The film is Malick’s first foray in telling a story in contemporary times, and for the most part he tells his tale in a rather straight forward fashion. Unfortunately, there is not enough substance from either a story or ethereal meditative stand point. Sure the film has some gorgeous moments in it, but to be honest it is hardly different to what you have seen in other Malick films. If this were an album, it would be a compilation of b-side material. Staunch Malick supporters will probably disagree with this statement, but To the Wonder is by far Malick’s weakest film to date.
Part of the problem with the film is that unlike, say The Tree of Life or Days of Heaven, you never feel invested in the characters. Outside of Marina and Father Quintana to a certain extent, there is no desire to explore the bigger questions with them. Affleck’s Neil is a man who internalizes everything and rarely speaks on the best of days. Like all the characters, he has fear in him but the cause for this is not explained, nor do you really care by the end of the film. As for McAdams’s Jane, well she is basically a blip on the map when you look at the grand scheme of the picture.
The most engaging aspect of the film, aside from the visuals, is Bardem’s Father Quintana. Despite being underused in the film, Malick does a good job juxtaposing Neil’s relationships drama and the story of Father Quintana’s lack of faith. In a film where love and being loved is a symbol of the spirit manifested in man, it is interesting to see a man whose primary job it is to spread God’s love, struggle so hard with his task. In one scene Father Quintana even hides in his house to avoid dealing with one woman. It is moments like this that are too few and far between in To the Wonder.
While beautifully shot, and one would expect no less from a Terrence Malick film, it is hard not to feel rather disappointed with To the Wonder. For a film that wants to explore how hate and fear can stem from a place of love? The film ultimately gets lost in its own kaleidoscope of thoughts. Diehard Malick fans will most likely enjoy the film, but most will walk away feeling unsatisfied.