Terrence Malick isn't a filmmaker with an overflowing roster of features. In almost 40 years, he's directed only six films. There was a five-year span between Badlands and Days of Heaven, a whopping 20 more until he offered The Thin Red Line, seven more until The New World, and another six until Tree of Life. Now the long percolation is a thing of the past. Just one year after wowing audiences with a film that merged the lives of a singular nuclear family with the creation of the universe, he returns with a treatise on love, To the Wonder – a similar conceit without the same resonance.
Once again, the tale is told in scenes and voiceovers with just the faintest hint of real-life interactions, many of which fade out for thoughts, scores and silence. Marina (Olga Kurylenko) has fallen in love with Neil (Ben Affleck). The pair frolic through France – a couple deeply sucked into the dance of flirtation, which slowly morphs into the dance of more lasting love. Neil opens his arms to her daughter and the trio move to the U.S. together as old-world Europe clashes with the Land of Plenty, their free-spirited love awkward in this new world.
Happy moments are replaced with melancholia. Marina and Neil struggle to keep the flame, her daughter struggles to connect, and in an almost completely separate narrative, a priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with faith and dependence. Marina flees, and Neil briefly wraps himself into the world of another struggling woman, Jane (Rachel McAdams), until Marina's return. These people all talk about ideas, but not with the same narrative grounding. Where Tree of Life was Koyaanisqatsi meets the recognizable, old-school Middle-American family, To the Wonder is an exploration of discontent and romantic dysfunction without the recognizable familial structure that frees the tale from narrative. As a result, instead of speaking to a larger human truth, the film ends up being a collage of stereotypes.
Its hard to tell whether Neil's stiff, almost entirely unspoken and uncharismatic nature is a result of Affleck's talents or Malick's plan. Neil is an emotionally devoid tree, a body for the women to stand against, and a very faint link to Bardem's priest – Neil literally tests soil toxicity while the priest travels to the town's desperate people, dejectedly hearing their complaints over and over without the littlest breath of light. The priest is an awkward derailment of the romance, an add-on that would likely seem more at home if any/all the actors who fell victim to Malick's infamous editing still appeared – Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper. The only light is offered by Marina, a light so desperate to balance the unengageable darkness that she becomes a manic pixie European girl, dancing around over and over and over again. She's passionate and emotional, but a cliche – a positive but apt embodiment of the volatile "French girl" that Julie Delpy once railed against in Before Sunrise.
Where his last offering had a continual air of deliberation, To the Wonder is a mishmash of ideas, a film that seems more about a filmmaker's emotional scream than a carefully plotted and organized piece of art that questions the very nature of life. In fact, there is a deliberate shift not only to Malick's timeline, but to his focus – he's no longer relaying stories so much as trying to work through some sort of inner turmoil or crisis of meaning. After life was born, romance suffered in the toxic soil of America, and he already has two more in post-production – an examination of birth and death, and one of life and truth. The autobiographic nature (the relationships in the film are said to be based in truth) might make this mix of films a treat as a whole, a comprehensive look into a cinematic mind, but on its own, To the Wonder offers little wonder at all – just a disjointed, empty tale lost in the shadow of Tree of Life.
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