To the Wonder is the latest from Terrence Malick and it is his most visually narrative feature yet; that is both a blessing and a curse over the course of the film.
Following a couples’ ups and, mostly, downs over a couple of years, the film is always beautiful, sometimes narratively compelling and occasionally rather frustrating. The film uses slim to none dialogue most of the time and instead moves the plot along with minimal voice over. This style will obviously lose many viewers, but the film is successful at telling a compelling and coherent narrative more often than not. The muted performances don’t hamper our ability to feel what the characters feel as we follow their emotional progress and Malick and his team actually succeed with ease for the first half of the film.
There are a number of interesting themes and ideas played with throughout the picture, but there isn’t much defined all the same. That’s not to say the film shouldn’t leave the viewer to ponder their own meaning of what they are watching, the film is designed for that, it’s just that any sense of intent gets muddled during the film’s latter half. The romance at the heart of the film is easy enough to follow, we watch Neil and Marina’s relationship progress as time goes by and I was engaged until they give their love a second chance. The film’s final acts loses their motivations and I found it hard to stay engaged as I couldn’t buy either of the characters’ reasons for staying.
Malick’s style also seems almost a parody of itself at times throughout the picture as the majestic twirling and awe that overcomes characters from time to time becomes a bit redundant, pointless and even not very well executed. Not finding this a problem is Olga Kurylenko as Marina as she is easily the standout of the film. She gets, and can sell, the emotion Malick is trying to capture through visuals, over dialogue, to show us how the characters feel. Her character, Marina, is interested in love, but is seemingly crushed by believing in it as her move to suburbia doesn’t go well for her, her family or her relationship. Suburban life ruins three of our main characters actually, Marina’s daughter and Neil as well, and while Malick makes the mundane neighborhoods look beautiful nothing good comes out of the setting.
The idea of a crushing suburban life is a theme never really fully thought through though and is just one of many ideas that seem half baked. Javier Bardem stars as a lost priest who seems to be done with the church and doing Gods work and I was intrigued to see where this plot line took us, but the character and the idea never find anything close to resembling a conclusion. There is also a briefly touched on a narrative about poisoned water supplies and sick families that is sadly only treated as an afterthought and you have to do a lot of inferring to read it as a damnation of industry destroying nature. Clearly Malick’s intent isn’t very clear with some of the bigger ideas he presents and I would have loved if he had dug into some of these ideas more thoroughly.
One of the biggest shortcomings of the film actually has to do with Rachel McAdams’ character and the confounding nature of her and Neil’s relationship. The two have great chemistry and I would have been happy to follow these two along their path, but they are quickly cut short for the return of Marina. Part of me wonders if they weren’t given more screen time because McAdams doesn’t fair very well when doing some of that patented Malikian acting. The little time that their relationship was given makes me wonder what the point of it was at all. It especially makes Neil’s decision to go back to Marina make even less sense and it is when McAdams leaves the film that it begins to lose its steam. Nothing comes out of the second go around between Marina and Neil and where it leaves us with them, I have no idea what happened in the final moments of the film.
I have been kind of negative throughout this review, but I was fully on board through the first hour plus or so. The editing, cinematography and direction are all wonderful and I was engrossed in this story of love for much of the runtime. Malick’s ability to a tell story almost entirely visually works wonderfully when he knows where he is going and he captures countless beautiful moments throughout. A scene on the tidelands outside a castle is worth the price of admission alone as the imagery is all together alien, beautiful and bizarre at once. You know the film making deserves some credit when power lines look beautiful in this film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography makes the film’s latter half watchable while the narrative gets more confounding and I think I would watch just about anything he shoots.
A final note before we wrap this up, Ben Affleck stars as Neil and actually gets the least amount of focus of the lead characters. He does a fine job in the film, but he doesn’t get many opportunities to really display much emotion. He hits the moments when he needs to, but Kurylenko and McAdams seem to be the more active characters in their respective relationships.
To the Wonder can’t really be recommended to anyone beyond fans of Malick, but I can’t imagine even his strongest supporters putting this up on the same pedestal as some of his other works. The visual language he creates is very effective when he has a story to tell, but sadly I think the messages and narratives get lost in the films second half. Still, it is one of the most gorgeous entries of this young year and still will be when the year is up. Malick’s style might have gotten the best of him at times here, but fans of the auteur will surely want to seek this out as his craft hasn’t dulled in the slightest.
To the Wonder is a C+