Practically coming on the heels of 2011’s Tree of Life, To the Wonder puts a chink in Terrence Malick’s reputation for taking his time between film releases while honing each production in the editing room until it satisfies his scrupulous demands. At the risk of sounding ungracious, perhaps that explains why To the Wonder seems so half-baked.
Most of Malick’s signature elements are here: the profundity of nature and its seasonal passages, the glory of love in both the physical and spiritual senses, a soundtrack and voiceovers that serve as proxies for demonstrative human emotions. Yet when layered onto the wisp of a story that is To the Wonder, the film becomes a cold and esoteric thing. To the Wonder will be required viewing for all students of Malick – and by that I mean every cinephile – but it’s not likely to escort viewers into states of transcendence.
Set in the present day – which is a first for a Malick film – To the Wonder is a story about the stages of love, from its first romantic awakenings through its disillusionments and waning. Told impressionistically and with little conversation or dialogue, the film is more like an accumulation of fragments rather than a conventional narrative. There’s an American man (played by Affleck, tamping down his movie-star magnetism) who falls in love with a French woman (Kurylenko) while visiting there for reasons never conveyed to the viewer. (Also never conveyed until the film’s closing credits, as I recall, are their names, Neil and Marina.) Their early days of infatuation are expressed through images of playful romping and entwined bodies in various Parisian locales and at Mont Saint-Michel, the ethereal abbey off the Normandy coast, which is known as the “Wonder of the Western World.” All we learn of this relationship is told through Marina’s voiceover, which is full of evocative but abstract thoughts.
Knowing Neil is unwilling to commit to marriage, Marina and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Chiline) nevertheless go home with him to Bartlesville, Okla., happy just to “go a little of our way together” through life. They frolic in the golden light of the Oklahoma fields in ways that call to mind Malick’s Days of Heaven. Neil is also shown at his job, which has something to do with the assessment of the area’s groundwater contamination. (Human activity seems to muck up paradise at every turn.) The child is the first of them to notice that something is “missing.” Their story is also intercut with that of the sad local priest (Bardem), who also feels something – presumably faith – missing in his life despite his daily ministrations and homilies. Marina and Tatiana return to France, but eventually Marina returns to Oklahoma without her daughter. While she is gone, Neil is swept into a romance with a woman he knew in his youth (McAdams), but it seems brief and Neil seems almost as entranced with her ranch and bison as he is with her. Upon her return, Neil and Marina marry in a civil ceremony. But eventually, inevitably, the seasons change.
Although To the Wonder never transported me, personally, to the ecstatic heights the title promises, there is still much here worth one’s engagement. Unconventional stories about abstract topics deserve their moments in the marketplace. Malick’s ambitions deserve support, even when they fall this side of heaven.