Visionary director Terrence Malick returns just two short years after The Tree of Life to tell another grand story, only this time focusing on relationships, love and the meaning of forgiveness. To the Wonder has been said to be Malick’s “Tree of Love” reaction to The Tree of Life, but aside from his trademark visuals, the film is much more distant and empty. To the Wonder is Malick’s weakest effort yet, blending together middling performances with beautiful locations. The film never quite adds up to anything more than a Malick demo reel of footage.
Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fall in love. So much that Neil offers Marina an opportunity to move with him from France to Oklahoma. They’re in love, but like most relationships they face many tests that present the option of failure. They struggle to keep things afloat and while Marina seeks help from a Priest (Javier Bardem) Neil gives up hope and rekindles some flames with an old friend by the name of Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Now the film shifts focus to Jane and Neil as they too fall in love and eventually disintegrate.
After this Neil goes back to Marina and attempts yet again to form a passionate relationship, but life intervenes and things go to shit.
Seriously, that is about as deep as Terrence Malick‘s latest film goes. I’ve always been one to praise Malick’s work, because the man knows how to wield a camera unlike anyone else, but with To the Wonder he lets the voice-overs get the best of the film’s central relationships.
Neil, Marina and Jane are defined by their fifteen lines of dialogue that are looped over and over via Malick’s trademark use of voice-overs. Usually he employs this filmmaking tool to allow us to tap into a character’s brain directly; to feel what they’re feeling at that given second, but with Wonder the voice-overs are simply used to constantly remind the audience of a specific tone or mood. When Neil is mad you’ll certainly know it, not because of Affleck acting out a scene on screen, but because of his constant voice-overs that describe his unhappiness with his current relationship.
That would be fine had Malick actually furthered the film’s story past two relationships. Even when focusing on these relationships you’ll quickly discover that there’s not much to be found. Neil is sometimes happy when he’s with Marina, but he’s also happy when he’s with Jane. Sometimes he’s downright pissed off when with either women. Why?
The film cuts back and forth and in between time frames without notification, so establishing a concrete timeline of events might get a little confusing. All that’s really important is that we know that the relationships are being tested over the changing of the seasons, which Malick incorporates flawlessly with his visual style, but not so much his storytelling sensibilities.
For a Malick film To the Wonder feels rather cold. It’s not so much empty, because Malick certainly works in an intertwining story, full of hidden meaning and messages, but To the Wonder isn’t all that touching for a film that captures the feeling of love and the struggles of relationships.
Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams are all held back by Malick’s unconventional presentation of the story. They can’t blossom or make their characters into their own, because Malick never allows for the audience to get within ten feet of them, emotionally. We’re constantly told how they’re feeling, but we’re never actually shown, aside from brief cut-ins that show the characters making love, kissing or doing something tender and innocent.
There’s never a moment where Affleck actually gets to emote out loud and express his inner-rage and that’s partially because of the nature of his character and also because of the way Malick chooses to restrict how much we can see or feel.
The only character that breaks through the wall is the priest, played by Javier Bardem. He’s the only character that seems to come the closest to a full circle. Bardem shows us the struggle of faith by way of constant dedication and the will to never give up on his journey through life. He comes face-to-face with several characters that force him to question his belief, but not once does he let them push him down or leave him completely without hope.
He’s always trying to find the light, even when the darkness has all but consumed him. Bardem can only go so far though and eventually Malick’s direction takes over, cutting him out of the spotlight and shifting the focus back onto Affleck and Kurylenko. This is where the film bogs itself down and sits around in its own filth. It’s gorgeous-looking, but it’s still mostly just hollow shit.
To the Wonder suffers from overdone voice-overs and an approach that’s far too distant for the audience to latch onto in any real way. The film is beautifully-shot and almost always a dazzling treat to feast your eyes upon, but when you break it down it’s nothing but a slow and boring dissection of love and relationships through characters without on-screen pulses.
To the Wonder – 6.5/10[springboard type=”video” id=”682853″ player=”dlyr002″ width=”600″ height=”365″ ]