To the Wonder perfectly exemplifies what can make a Terrence Malick film both beautiful and maddeningly impenetrable. His stories are more contemplative than they are narrative; he always seems to be pondering the mystery of why and how, which is plainly evidenced by the interior monologues he assigns his characters and his visual predilection for natural surroundings. Sometimes, this stylistic approach works to amazing effect. As proof, look no further than his previous effort, The Tree of Life, one of the most beautifully spiritual films I’ve ever seen. This time around, however, something is missing from the equation. Malick most certainly had a vision, and yet he isn’t able to make audiences see it as clearly as he could. It’s almost as if he’s intentionally keeping it at arm’s length.
This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t work. It simply isn’t as easy to determine what the director is trying to say. It’s still a masterful technical achievement; Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, use imagery to evoke powerful emotions, both positive and negative. For this alone, credit must also be given to his five film editors and composer Hanan Townshend, the latter especially, for music truly is the language of the soul. There is also something about enigma that Malick is intoxicated by – the enigma that is human behavior, or our reason for being, or the pattern of nature, or life itself. In this sense, his characters are essentially an extension of him. They may not understand what they’re involved in or why they’re involved in it, but they drink it in nevertheless.
The characters in To the Wonder are no exception to the rule. Having said that, I see no reason why they had to be enigmas to the audience. I was absolutely at a loss to explain what motivated them, apart from what appeared to be a longing to recapture the serenity they once felt. Very little dialogue is spoken aloud; most of it is contained within the characters’ heads and is so poetically structured that it comes off more like prayer. Most of the interior monologues are delivered by Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Parisian single mother who fell in love with an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) during his visit to France. Early scenes show just how in love they were; they tenderly and playfully navigate picturesque French landmarks, most notably Mont St. Michel, and untouched countrysides as if one were a physical extension of the other.
Marina decides that she and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), should move with Neil back to his small town in Oklahoma, where his job requires him to visit residential construction sites. It isn’t long before the love between Marina and Neil cools and eventually freezes. We have no real idea why this happens, and an examination of Neil will be of little help; here is a man of so few words that we don’t even hear what he’s thinking. Marina returns to France but no longer feels connected to the country, and immediately longs to return to America. Tatiana doesn’t feel the same way, and in due time, she has gone off to live with her father. As Marina plans a return to Oklahoma, Neil begins to develop feelings for an old friend named Jane (Rachel McAdams), whose contemplations will also be heard by the audience.
A subplot centers on Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who gives his weekly sermons and regularly lends his services to the poor. In spite of his dutiful affiliation with his church, his faith has been shaken to the point that he will spend a majority of the film praying for it to return. I’m not entirely sure what his connection is to the story of Neil and Marina, apart from the fact that, like them, he too is in a state of deep contemplation. Quintana wants to reclaim his love of God, while Marina wants to reclaim her love of Neil. It’s not known what Neil wants. Perhaps it’s just as well; there are people in real life who are perpetually unfulfilled and in search of something they believe is missing from their lives. I suspect he would have interesting conversations with Woody Allen’s Cristina character, who only knew what she didn’t want.
It’s said that To the Wonder is the most experimental of Malick’s films, that the actors worked for the most part without a screenplay and that Lubezki worked without any lights. I think this largely explains why the film is not as easily accessible as some of Malick’s other films. It’s unquestionably a fascinating work of art, but it’s also excessively ponderous and overly abstract in its narrative approach. What I wanted the most was a sense of who the characters really are. Voiceover narrations can only take you so far, especially when they sound like ruminations from an essay on existentialism. They needed a greater sense of purpose, a more concrete physical presence, to be better developed in general. With that grounding, I believe I would have had a much better response to the film.