Terrence Malick is without a doubt the most interesting director working today. His style is entirely his own, with a poetic touch that he brings to every narrative. Some have grown frustrated with his latest work, To The Wonder, claiming that his unique style is becoming somewhat of a parody of itself. While I can understand the frustration people have with this inventive way of telling a story, I can’t help but disagree that To The Wonder is a step backwards for the director. Let me put it this way. If critics praised Tree of Life, then there is no reason for the strong negativity surrounding this film.
To The Wonder involves a love story that begins with a man named Neil (Ben Affleck) who is traveling across Europe. The moment the film starts he has already formed a love fling with the beautiful Marina (Olga Kurylenko). It’s a pretty typical Malick setup. Neil chases Marina around while she laughs; Marina’s thoughts are sounding over the images; the voiceover is written poetically in standard Malick fashion. I’ve read various reactions saying that it’s a bit much with phrases such as “What is this love that loves us?” However, most of it is spoken in Ukranian or Russian which makes it sound less silly and adds to the beauty off the film.
It’s implied that Marina is a divorcee by showing she has a child. Neil with his strong infatuation for Marina asks if she would like to stay with him in the United States, which she overwhelmingly accepts. We then return with Neil to the state of Oklahoma where Marina and her daughter have journeyed. From here, the film begins to take a serious direction on the struggling relationship between Neil and Marina. Olga Kurylenko is really showing some of her best work here in my opinion. Her character starts off glamorized by her new surroundings and with this new hopeful love she believes she has found with Neil. And yes, she twirls in fields of grass while he follows and playfully chases her, but it’s not as much as other people would lead you to believe.
As the story progress though, she becomes a lost soul and detached from Neil. Some of these moments reminded me of Tree of Life, where the central man is almost written as a problematic person. With that film, Brad Pitt had conflicting issues with his family and children, and Malick never let you inside his thoughts. Here, Malick handles Affleck’s role in the same manner. Neil almost becomes like a lurking ghost to their relationship. He’s around but he might as well be completely gone and we can hear Marina’s mind longing for a sense to be wanted.
Javier Bardem has the most fascinating role of the entire movie as Father Quintana. He meets Marina to help her find strength in her love, not only for herself, but with her partnership with Neil as well. Father Quintana’s struggle with his own love for God feels like a huge missed opportunity for a film on its own. It’s interesting to hear the thoughts and moments with Bardem while they lasts in the film. Unfortunately, I was left wanting more by his presence in the film, and the fault for that lies with the writing.
One of my favorite things about watching a Terrence Malick film is the fluidity of the shots and the way they are cut. These are not films you have to pay close attention to. With a Malick film you can sit back and let the sights, sounds, and emotions wash over you while the narrative is told. As the images flash over the screen each person can have a different interpretation of the cinematic poetry being presented. When I first saw Tree of Life I found the format a tad frustrating to follow but now after having adjusted to that experience, I walked away from To The Wonder with a new appreciation for Malick.
Now back to the criticism this film has been receiving. It boggles my mind that people can pick on this movie and praise Tree of Life. Most of the signatures from Malick people are complaining about were almost doubled in the last movie. To say it was okay to use some of these gimmicks in Tree of Life and say they are redundant now just seems a bit silly. It’s either okay to shoot a film this way, or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways. I will admit, in comparison to the grand scale that Tree of Life delivered, To The Wonder definitely feels somewhat insignificant. That being said, that doesn’t make this movie any less beautiful.
To The Wonder is about love, faith, devotion, and having the ability to control them. It’s not the epic masterpiece that Tree of Life was but it’s just as unique. No one can make films look as vibrant and beautiful as Malick can. Bottom line, if you’re a fan of Terrence Malick, I think you will find much to enjoy in To The Wonder.by