Following hot on the heels (relatively speaking) of 2011’s The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is the second film of Terrence Malick’s late middle age productivity boom. The Texan theologian here continues his search for god in the world, and in the meantime paints a beautiful, if perhaps all-too-simple, picture of love lost and found.
To the Wonder is for certain a Malick film, following the style he began in 1973’s Badlands and perfected in 1978 with Days of Heaven. The camera wistfully fawns over landscapes; characters narrate their emotions with far more eloquence than they could ever voice in reality; story moves forward at a sluggish, carefree pace. It would be easy to argue that To the Wonder is, to some degree, Malick on autopilot, and at times it almost looks and feels like the work of a very talented Malick impersonator, forging his work to sell it on the arthouse black market. But then a single image, or camera movement, or poetic line of narration will pull you back to reality, and you see once more that while this is not his finest work, you are still watching a film by Terrence Malick, the master.
Let me lightly sketch the story (as does the film). Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko meet in Paris and fall wildly, childishly in love. They visit Normandy together and climb Mont Saint-Michel, where Kurylenko compares its wonder to the wonder of being in love. She and her daughter move to the rural US to be with Affleck, but the joy soon fades. The couple fight. The young girl struggles without any English. Visas expire. Alone again, Affleck takes up with old flame Rachel McAdams, until Kurylenko returns. Elsewhere, immigrant priest Javier Bardem struggles with his faith in god just as the others struggle with their faith in love.
Capturing the characters’ turbulent emotional rollercoasters through their voiceover narrations, which often contradict the beauty of the images presented, To the Wonder has a lot to say about very little. Whereas The Tree of Life spoke deeply about matters of faith, family, creation, memory and more, To the Wonder is simpler, focusing solely on how love – for people, places, or god – can come and go. Despite its presentation, this film is surely the least philosophical of Malick’s films since Days of Heaven, and hardcore Malick fans may be disappointed.
But it looks and sounds divine throughout, from the grey shores of Normandy to the yellowed fields of Oklahoma. Malick finds an enviable beauty in every image, be it Kurylenko playing with shafts of light coming in through the window blinds, or Bardem tending the most needy and scarred members of his flock. The ethereal orchestral music raises much of the imagery from stunning to nirvanic.
Affleck is suitably cold as the male lead, but Malick gets nothing exceptional from him, albeit getting a good performance from Affleck could be deemed exceptional in and of itself. Bardem is capable but unchallenged. Kurylenko, better known as eye candy in the dregs of mainstream action movies, has never been finer – the only thing more in love with her than Malick’s camera is sunlight itself.
Unemployable due to her visitor visa, there is sadly very little for Kurylenko to do – her CV no doubt lists her job title as “lover of life”. Because of this, a substantial amount of To the Wonder is made up of Kurylenko (and sometimes her daughter) jumping up and down on furniture, twirling in sundresses or writhing in the long grass. It is always pleasant to look at, but it does get old across a 100-minute run-time. That the accompanying message is so slight does not help justify these sequences.
Yes, To the Wonder is the weakest film Malick has made, but that still makes it far greater than the majority of films out there. It suffers through lack of ambition, but not through lack of commitment; this is a spectacularly made if somewhat unfinished picture. But like every film Malick makes, talking about it will not do. It needs to be seen, and experienced, and absorbed. Much like nature itself.
Now who wants to go outside for a twirl?