‘To the Wonder’ Review
It should be impossible for a movie to be both enthralling and boring, but somehow ‘To the Wonder‘ pulls it off. It contains sights — of picturesque Oklahoma sunsets and impossibly serene European beaches — so beautiful they awaken you to the glory of the world around us. And it also contains passages — of Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko running and twirling through fields, and then rolling around in bed, and then fighting and screaming, and then running and twirling in that field again — so repetitive and tiresome that they nearly lull you to sleep.
This jumble of cinematic contradictions comes courtesy of Terrence Malick, the auteur whose works include ‘Days of Heaven,’ ‘The Thin Red Line’ and most recently ‘The Tree of Life.’ Once, Malick made movies with stories and characters; those days, it seems, are over. He concerns himself now with reveries of sounds and images — the human participants are here mostly as living props on hand to pose, touch and whisper dreamily in voiceover about love and God. Any resemblance to actual human beings, living or dead, is strictly coincidental.
These blank avatars of Malickian longing, more absences than archetypes, are named Marina (Kurylenko) and Affleck (Neil). We meet them on a train in Europe, on their way to Mont St. Michel cathedral — “to the wonder,” as Marina describes it. They are very much in love, so the French Marina and her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) accompany Neil home to Oklahoma, where they are happy — signified by the scenes of twirling and rolling — until they are not — signified by the scenes of fighting and screaming. The reasons for either emotional state are largely left to our imagination; Malick offers very little insight into what brings Marina and Neil together, or what drives them apart.
Eventually Neil reconnects with an old love named Jane (Rachel McAdams), and Marina, after finding little comfort from a local priest (Javier Bardem), considers straying as well. I’m not a marriage counselor but Marina and Neil’s biggest problem seems to be that they spend all their time nuzzling in magic hour light (a Malick staple) or romping through fields of wheat thistles (ditto) and zero time actually communicating. Practically the only words spoken in ‘To the Wonder’ are little bits of poems spoken by the characters in voiceover (“Open me. Enter me. Show me how to love you”). At this point in his career, naturalistic dialogue is like a second language to Malick.
Fortunately, he remains an unparalleled weaver of images. They don’t add up to much emotionally in ‘To the Wonder,’ but their style and artistry are sometimes their own reward. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki trails Kurylenko and Affleck across two continents, circling them in those blessed wheat fields and hovering above them in lovers’ embraces, his luminous visions lending the entire exercise a sheen of importance it otherwise doesn’t earn. One shot, with the camera gliding over the surface of a lake as Affleck in the background casts a fishing line into the foreground, literally made my jaw drop (water imagery, perhaps suggesting the gulf between Marina’s old home and her new one, and also reflecting Neil’s barely mentioned job checking streams and wells for contaminants, is a recurring motif). My favorite sequence in the movie is the final one, which leaves Marina and Neil behind to consider many of the film’s locations one last time without human interruption. Each is more dazzling than the next.
Malick, who once went two decades between directorial efforts, has now released two films in three years with three more projects on the way in various states of post-production. With all this new material circling around the same images and themes over and over again — natural beauty versus spoiled humanity, people searching for meaning and happiness in a world that is both so lovely and so cruel — he is getting dangerously close to becoming a parody of himself. With mediocre characters offset by majestic images, ‘To the Wonder’ is, at best, the artful noodlings of a creative genius off his game.
‘To the Wonder’ opens in select theaters and is available on VOD and iTunes on April 12.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’