Film Review: To the Wonder

Terence Malick’s newest meditative bauble is a troubled love story (featuring a nearly silent Ben Affleck) seen through a glass darkly; his inability to achieve a customary grandeur makes it comes across as less masterly than foolish.

Stories about couples who don’t or can’t communicate are a dime a dozen. Rarer is the movie about a couple who are so poor at this that they are never once seen addressing words to the other and receiving a response. In Terence Malick’s To the Wonder, a floating beauty of a philosophical love story that can’t yank its head out of the wispy clouds of meaning long enough to consider the humans mucking about on terra firma, we see a couple fall in and out of love without talking. Maybe it was all in the eyes.

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are first spotted in France, taking a train from Paris to Mont St. Michel, off the coast of Normandy. They swan around the awe-inspiring monastery that crowds the top of a tidal island like a grand fortress sprung from Tolkien’s imagination. They gaze soulfully at each other and consider the grey stone and endless sky. In one shot of epic beauty, they watch the tides roll slowly in across the sands. They are in love with each other and, seemingly, eternity. Afterwards, Neil brings Marina and her little girl Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to live with him back in Oklahoma. Chaos and unhappiness follow.
For most filmmakers, this would represent a crashing down to earth. It’s a departure from the Old World grandeur of Paris for the ranch homes and food-franchise zones of Middle America. But Malick’s take on his story varies little from setting to setting, and the same ethereal concerns that swaddled his characters in Europe follow them to the wide-open fields and airy bungalows of Oklahoma. At first, this feels deliberate, as though Malick is saying that setting is immaterial to these people’s deeper concerns. Before long, though, it begins to appear that maybe this is the only way that Malick knows or is interested in filming his material. It’s not only the setting but the people that seem immaterial to the creator of this sparkling but also laughable and empty bauble of a film where the camera hovers like an interloper on the set of a fashion-magazine photo shoot.

The operatic presentation of insistently high-toned soundtrack, airy yet grand voiceovers and scintillating camerawork that he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki used to make The Tree of Life so transportive is used here again, only to much less effect. As before, Malick only approaches his characters obliquely. We see Neil and Marina’s fights, some brutal, only behind the scrim of her narration. But whereas such an approach made sense in his last film—we viewed Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s bad marriage through the eyes of their son, too young to fully comprehend—here it just seems like habit, as though Malick would rather not get down in the muck and mire of interpersonal issues. What does Marina do all day? For a film with such an interior focus, it leaves its characters’ motivations or desires surprisingly blank. Malick can’t even be bothered to clarify whatever it is that Neil does for a living (an environmental engineer of some kind) or what happens to another romantic partner (Rachel McAdams, doing her best with no material, like everyone else) who pops up, marries him and then disappears.

To the Wonder is a film begging to be laughed at. The scenery is incredible to behold, with even the bare suburban street outside Neil’s unfurnished ranch home given a flinty prairie radiance. But after the sixteenth time one beholds Marina dancing about while Neil stares at her glumly and her voiceover whispers airy nothings like “Where are we when we’re here?” or “Which is the truth?”, the possibility emerges that the film simply doesn’t have much going on behind the screen.

This likelihood becomes even clearer in a side plot about a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), undergoing a crisis of faith. But except for some scenes where we see him failing to connect with his flock and wandering in disconsolate fashion through the town’s rougher neighborhoods, the film gives little reason for him to be there. It’s possible Quintana is meant to be just another lost person struggling to connect the ineffable with the everyday, just as Neil and Marina are unable to unite the idyllic Mont St. Michel vision of their love with the everyday reality.

When it comes to investing the things of daily life with the gleam of effervescence, Malick is one of the great living artists. But even he can’t scrape much interest out of watching these submerged, murky souls maunder about his sublime compositions. By returning to the same well one too many times with too little reason, Malick has blundered right into his self-parody phase. It’s a tiresome thing to behold.