Let’s start with the obvious disclaimer: the director is Terrence Malick.
If you’re not interested in a movie that’s far more lyrical than narrative, if you’re uncomfortable with actors portraying philosophical constructs rather than fully fleshed characters, if you’ve only sat through one of Malick’s earlier films as some sort of sadistic endurance test, then you’re better off skipping To the Wonder.
As for me, until the last couple years, I’d had mixed feelings about the filmmaker. I thought Days of Heaven was overrated. I liked The New World well enough. His World War II film, The Thin Red Line, was awfully dull. But then came 2011’s The Tree of Life, a masterpiece and the best movie of its year.
After such a grandly ambitious work, which placed the story of an ordinary 20th-century American family in the context of the meaning and history of the cosmos (and, yes, included dinosaurs), To the Wonder feels much smaller in its outlook. It too ponders the nature of human existence, but it’s even more explicitly focused on a single aspect: love.
We begin with Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) madly in love and exploring Paris and Mont Saint-Michel together. There’s relatively little dialogue. Instead, the voiceover switches between the characters as they whisper unsaid longings, hopes, and regrets. Even as we watch quickly cut scenes of their joyful romance, their relationship seems as though it’s already finished.
Marina has a daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), and the two of them move to the United States with Neil. Malick paints a stark visual contrast between the Old World and the New. France is mostly narrow streets and centuries-old buildings under perpetually gray skies. In their brand new subdivision in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the sun shines brightly over the wide-open spaces.
Neil has commitment issues, and soon enough the couple grows apart. For a time Marina returns to Paris, and he takes up with a deeply religious woman (Rachel McAdams) he’d previously known in his youth. Meanwhile the local parish priest (Javier Bardem) is undergoing a crisis of faith, unable to see God as he once did. Anyway, that’s the plot outline. Just remember that the plot is mostly beside the point.
When characters speak, their words are often directed, vaguely, at “you.” At times it’s unclear whether Marina is crying out to her lover or to God or to some mysterious spiritual force that inhabits the entire natural world. This uncertainty is intentional. We tend to think of romantic love and love for God and the love we foster for any connection to the rest of life on Earth as three distinct emotions. Malick is suggesting any difference is merely an illusion.
Neil’s reluctance to pick a life partner is paralleled by the inability of the priest either to recover his beliefs or to give up the pretense of celebrating Mass when he’s merely going through the motions. “Jesus insists on choosing,” the priest says during one of his homilies. “The man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talents in the earth: for him, he can do nothing.” A person can’t truly be alive when he avoids choices.
Where To the Wonder fails to match the quality of its predecessor in the Malick canon is in its gnawingly obvious symbolism. Neil and Marina spend much of their time stateside moving about the nearly empty rooms of their house, living out of boxes, using makeshift furniture. (We get it: They’re not fully committing to this life together.) A church janitor explains to the priest how he can feel the spiritual nature of the sun’s light when he puts his hand to a stained-glass window. (And so God and love and light are treated throughout the film as one and the same.)
I also found that, perhaps because of the story’s smaller scope, it was harder to ignore its flaws. The characters are simplistic, too flat and distant to engage with, mere ciphers. It was more difficult to be carried away by the thrill of Malick’s signature camera moves, gorgeously photographed compositions, and earnest emotions.
And yet what other filmmaker today is so beautifully weaving together pure imagery and ideas into epic poetry? How many others have ever even made the attempt? That’s why we should value the work of Terrence Malick, even in his less successful efforts. The man isn’t burying his talents.