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To the Wonder

A visually stunning but impressionistic mishmash from "The Tree of Life's" Terrence Malick.

To The Wonder will, as they used to say, separate the men from the boys when it comes to die-hard allegiance to all things Terrence Malick. A severely impressionistic account of the ebbs and flows in the romantic life of a man so remote that he's essentially a non-character in his own drama, this sometimes beautiful, dramatically inert evocation of remembered moments from two intense but ultimately unharmonious relationships takes the voice-over technique employed in sections of The Tree of Life and runs with it for nearly the duration. However accomplished Malick's technique might be, this mostly comes off, especially during the laborious second hour, as visual doodling without focused thematic goals. Currently without a distributor domestically, this ultimately enervating film will have trouble rustling audiences in any market.

There is one type of viewer who will definitely go for the film in a big way: anyone with an unlimited appetite for watching Olga Kurylenko prance, waft, twirl and cavort through sun-flared hand-held shots. There is truly no end of shots like this, quite a few of which also involve various soft fabrics she can touch or pass; Rachel McAdams gets to partake in a bit of this, too, though Ben Affleck does not. He doesn't get to do much of anything except look sullen, grim and/or blank in the back or on the edge of shots while the camera emphasizes the woman.

At least one thing is clear about the film, and that's the meaning of the title. In French-language voice-over from Kurylenko's Marina, we hear about Mont Saint-Michel, a place classically referred to as "the wonder," as she and her man (Affleck) walk through the wet sand around the monument off the shore of Normandy to profound strains of the prelude to the first act of Wagner's Parsifal.

"Love makes us one," intones Marina, and she and her guy (whose name is never stated but is listed in the credits as Neil) do seem very much in love. But after about 10 minutes, the couple and Marina's 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), are suddenly on the flat, treeless plains of Oklahoma, where Neil has taken work in the detection of ground and water contamination (the production notes refer to Neil as an aspiring writer, but that's never mentioned either). "A land so calm. Honest. Rich," states Marina between gleeful spins around her sparsely furnished home and through laundry hanging out back. But also boring. Dull. Lifeless. Tatiana is the first to figure this out as she can make no friends at school. Marina has to admit, "There's something missing." Neil, as usual, has nothing to say.

With the couple running out of gas, narration duties are passed to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who has had a similar realization. "My heart is cold," he confesses, adding that he has lost his connection with God. The priest delivers dull sermons to mostly empty pews and dutifully makes the rounds to life's unfortunates, but without a real sense of mission.

So God is silent and people's souls are numb in this land of cookie-cutter houses, seen-better-days town centers, soaring electrical towers and endless roads. Everyone and everything seems undernourished in this environment, so at the 40-minute mark, Marina and Tatiana decamp to Paris.

Then Neil chances to meet Jane (McAdams), a former flame whose life is in disarray but who has a lovely farmhouse on a bluff. The renewed couple gambols through wheat fields where it's always magic hour, amid scenic herds of buffalo and finally into the sack. Within minutes of screen time, this idyll goes south as well, with Jane, in one of her few lines of dialogue, saying: "What we had was nothing. You made it into nothing."

At this point, one might be justified in asking serious questions about Neil, a leading contender for biggest cipher of a leading man in modern cinema. With the barest shards of dialogue, he holds his women tight when love is strong, approaches them with concerned sympathy when they turn unhappy and broods off in corners or while driving once a rupture seems inevitable. Malick has a history of drastically cutting male roles: He essentially eliminated Adrien Brody's leading part from The Thin Red Line, and Sean Penn didn't fare too well in Tree of Life. Here, it could have been a stand-in for all it matters as Affleck isn't given a chance.

Still, through the film's first half, one can at least hope all of the dramatic uncertainty will have a point. But things dissipate considerably during the second hour after Marina returns to Oklahoma, where life is uneventful as ever and the pattern is repeated all over again.

The one sequence with any punch and, perhaps not coincidentally, with sustained dialogue as opposed to voice-over, involves Marina's live-wire Italian friend Anna (a fired-up Romina Mondello), who challenges her friend to shake things up and get a pulse. "There's nothing here!" she is not the first to point out. Marina does eventually do something out of character, but it's a shallow gesture and the wrap-up provides no synthesis or insight into what has just been witnessed.

Aspects of the story, involving a foreign wife and an encounter with a previously known woman, are said to be autobiographical for Malick. But given how neutered and uncommunicative the male figure has been made, the film offers no strong sense of personal experience other than a feel for the physical environment, the aspect of Malick's work that always comes across most acutely no matter the subject.

The physicality of images in Wonder is undeniable, but because of the relentless hand-held movements and constant recomposing within individual shots, the visuals seem less predetermined than in the director's previous films. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki went part-way down this road in Tree of Life, but they've gone so far now that it feels like the late 1960s all over again.

By far the most sophisticated and complex element of the film is the soundtrack, which would likely be instructive to listen to on its own, without the pictures. On first impression, it consists of layer upon layer, with an eclectic selection of works by famous composers (Berlioz, Haydn, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Gorecki, Part) blended with more esoteric choices and contributions by composer Hanan Townshend along with the voice-overs and natural sounds.

Perhaps there is a hidden rhythmic and thematic structure behind the facade of Wonder that has to do with the coming and going of seasons and emotions, the rise and fall of relationships, the difficulty of sustaining love and faith and so on, all connected to the use of music and the echoing of voice-over. If so, however, it doesn't assert itself meaningfully during the act of watching a film that seems drained of life and ideas rather than sustained by them.

Venues: Venice, Toronto film festivals
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
Director: Terrence Malick Rated R, 112 minutes