TO THE WONDER
Directed by: Terence Malick
Written by: Terence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline
Prolific is not a word we usually associate with filmmaker Terence Malick. After making two critically acclaimed films in the 1970s, BADLANDS in 1973 and DAYS OF HEAVEN five years later, Malick took what turned into a seemingly self-imposed twenty-year sabbatical from filmmaking. Talk of new projects thrilled cinephiles, only to be dashed when they failed to materialize. By the late ‘90s, however, Malick was ready to resume his interrupted career, directing THE THIN RED LINE, a lyrical, poetic meditation of men and war (World War II to be exact), before turning his attention to a provocative exploration of colonialism and assimilation in THE NEW WORLD seven years later. Despite post-production delays, THE TREE OF LIFE, a deeply personal, resonant exploration of life, everything, and the universe, arrived in 2011, once again to acclaim from critics and cinephiles. His latest film, TO THE WONDER, will likely receive a similar response.
A step back for Malick in terms of scope, scale, and even ambition, TO THE WONDER is nonetheless a deeply personal, elegiac film centered on romantic love found and lost. Thematically, Malick connects the various permutations of romantic live to issues of faith, personal and spiritual, the latter specifically through a Roman Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), struggling with a crisis in faith. Quintana, however, remains a secondary character, crossing paths with the romantic couple, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), at the center of TO THE WONDER, only briefly, tangentially. Typical of Malick’s preference for opaque, elliptical storytelling, he doesn’t introduce Neil and Marina by name. In fact, we never hear their names in the film. What little we do hear comes courtesy of the whispered voiceover narration that’s been a key component of Malick’s unconventional approach to narrative storytelling.
There too, Malick allows his preference for non-natural speech, of poetry to dominate the scenes when we hear human voices at all. More often than not, the voiceovers trail away and with them, any dialogue and diegetic sound. Instead, Malick pairs almost every scene with a specific piece of classical music, everything from J.S. Bach to Henryk Górecki. Like THE TREE OF LIFE, the combination of classical music with scenes of seemingly everyday activities like packing and unpacking for a move, walking down a barely populated street in a small town, or a walk through the wide, empty expanses of Oklahoma are shot with Malick’s compositional profligacy, a repeated emphasis on natural beauty almost always at “magic hour” (twilight), Malick’s preferred shooting time. There, as elsewhere, Malick crafts not just a celebration of nature, but of the connection between nature and spirituality.
Usually apolitical, Malick brings an environmentalist concern by making Neil a government inspector. Neil takes soil and water samples, and questions local residents about their drinking water and their health. Neil doesn’t seem to take any satisfaction from his work, but it’s difficult to imagine what, if anything, Neil thinks about a particular subject, especially his romance with Marina, a French woman and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), he meets outside of Paris at Mont Saint-Michel, a monastery located on a picturesque tidal island. Neil and Marina’s seemingly chance encounter leads to Marina and Tatiana relocating to the United States for an extended holiday. Although Malick gives Marina most of the voiceovers, she’s not a protagonist in a conventional sense. While Malick privileges us with Marina’s thoughts, there’s little dialogue to suggest a personal connection with the reticent, emotionally disconnected Neil.
While Malick often shoots Marina full on, slipping between an objective POV for a subjective one (Neil’s or ours), he doesn’t treat similarly, shooting Neil from behind or in silhouette, always walking away from the camera. As Neil, Affleck often looks uncomfortable, forced to react rather than act, forced to become a blank slate for Marina’s fears and desires (and, by extension, our own). Malick introduces another character, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a rancher seemingly better suited and attuned to Neil, but whether out of residual feelings or a sense of obligation, Neil reunites with Marina after what seems to be the end of their relationship. Neil’s emotional attachment, however, remains unchanged, practically dooming any chance of a long-term relationship with Marina.
If Neil feels too little, Marina and Quintana feel too much. Marina’s perpetual openness to new experiences inevitably leads to restlessness. Malick depicts Quintana as a man dedicated to his parishioners and his vocation, but desperately lonely for connection to others and to the God who refuses to make his presence felt and known. In a sense, God is the fourth character in TO THE WONDER, the equivalent of Neil for Quintana, but where Marina struggles with Neil’s emotional and, on occasion, physical, distance, not to mention their cultural and social differences, Quintana finds a way to reconcile himself to a God who only speaks to him indirectly through the parishioners and non-parishioners (the poor, the ill, the drug-addicted) Quintana serves with humility and even thankfulness.
4.5 out of 5