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 noncharacter 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 in some ways, this mostly comes off, especially in the laborious second hour, as visual doodling without focused thematic goals. Currently without a distributor domestically, this ultimately enervating film will have trouble rustling up audiences in any market.
There is one type of viewer who will definitely go for the film in a big way — those with a literally unlimited appetite for watching Olga Kurylenko prance, waft, twirl and cavort through sun-flared handheld shots to exult in being carefree and happy. 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, although Ben Affleck does not. In fact, he doesn’t get to do much of anything except look sullen, grim and/or blank in the back of 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, because it is explained right away. In French-language voiceover from Kurylenko’s Marina, we hear about Mont Saint-Michel as 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 the profound strains of the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal.
“Love makes us one,” Marina intones, 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 in the flat, treeless plains country 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,” Marina states in 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. Then Marina has to admit, “There’s something missing.” Neil, as usual, has nothing to say.
With the lead couple running out of gas, narration duties are passed over to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who’s had a similar realization. “My heart is cold,” he confesses, adding that he’s lost his direct connection with God. The priest delivers dull sermons to mostly empty pews and dutifully makes the rounds to life’s derelict and unfortunates, but without vigor or a sense of real mission.
So God is silent and the 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.
But then Neil chances to meet Jane (McAdams), a former flame whose life is in disarray. But she does have a lovely farm house up on a bluff, and the renewed couple gambols through nature, through wheat fields where it’s always magic hour, amid scenic herds of buffalo and finally into the sack. But within just 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 cypher of a leading man in modern cinema. With the barest shards of dialogue to speak, Neil holds his women tight when love is strong, approaches them with concerned sympathy when they turn unhappy and broods in corners or while driving a car once a rupture looks inevitable. Regardless of whether there was once more for the character to do on the scripted page, the film as edited concentrates almost entirely on the women and makes Neil look like an ineffectual bystander. Of course, Malick has a history of drastically cutting down male roles; he essentially eliminated Adrien Brody’s leading role from The Thin Red Line, and Sean Penn didn’t fare too well in The 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 and anticipate that all the dramatic uncertainty and vagueness will have a point and payoff. But things dissipate considerably during the second hour after Marina, unhappy in Paris and now without her daughter, surprisingly returns to Oklahoma, where life is as uneventful as ever. One inconclusive sequence after another plays out as the same pattern is repeated all over again, as everything in life, including her relationship with Neil, is either contaminated or dead.
The one sequence with any punch and, perhaps not coincidentally, with sustained live 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’s 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, which is the aspect of Malick’s work that always comes across most acutely no matter what the subject.
The physicality of the images in To the Wonder is undeniable but, because of the relentless handheld movements and constant recomposing within individual shots, the visuals seem more arbitrary and certainly less predetermined than in the director’s previous films. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki went part-way down this road in The 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 to be instructive to listen to on its own, without the pictures. On a first impression, it consists of layer upon layer, with an eclectic selection of work by famous composers (Berlioz, Hayden, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Gorecki, Part, et al.) 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 To the 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.
Production: Brothers K Prods., FilmNation Entertainment
Venues: Venice, Toronto film festivals
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Romina Mondello, Tatiano Chiline
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Producers: Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda
Executive producers: Glen Basner, Jason Krigsfeld, Joseph Krigsfeld
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Editors: A.J. Edwards, Keith Frasse, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa
Music: Hanan Townshend