My four-word review of To the Wonder: “more of the same.” Which is not necessarily a bad thing … if you like Malick.
To the Wonder continues the autobiographical mode of The Tree of Life. That one was mainly about Malick’s Texas boyhood. This one’s about his marriage. The story is simple to the point of abstraction. A man (Ben Affleck) meets a woman (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris. The woman has a 10-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline) from a previous relationship. The man takes the woman and her daughter to Texas where the two of them, mother and daughter, surrounded by America’s wide-open spaces, come to feel increasingly alienated. In the meantime, the man reconnects with an old girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) who works as a cattle rancher. Eventually, mother and daughter return to Paris.
These characters, like the characters in silent films, exist mainly as archetypes. See, for example, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), in which the principal characters are referred to simply as “The Man,” “The Wife,” and “The Woman From the City.” Malick’s characters do have names (Affleck is “Neil,” Kurylenko is “Marina,” and McAdams is “Jane”), but I had to consult the IMDB to determine what they were. There is hardly any dialogue in the film. Most of the words we hear are spoken in voiceover – Kurylenko’s Marina gets the lion’s share – asking questions like (I am paraphrasing wildly here): “What is the Earth?” “What is the Sky?” “What is this Oneness of which we are all One?”
The natural-lit imagery is consistently beautiful. There isn’t an ugly shot in the entire film.
There is also a subplot involving a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who tries his best to be a good Christian, but feels estranged from his God.
Where the film’s romantic triangle vaguely recalls Murnau’s Sunrise, the priest subplot seems to have been inspired by Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963), another film about a man of the cloth who has to cope with “God’s silence.”
The romantic plot and priest subplot intersect briefly when Marina, a Catholic, turns to the priest for spiritual guidance.
The film and all of its characters are in one way or another reaching for the spiritual, frequently evoked, as in Malick’s previous films, by classical music. I was particularly struck by a shot of an Econo-Lodge at dusk, surreally accompanied on the soundtrack by music from Wagner’s “Parsifal.”
For the most part, the spiritual transcendence sought after by the film and its characters is not attained. However, the film succeeds magnificently in showing the beauty of the physical universe, the natural world. You walk out of the theater noticing the beauty of the world around you.
The film’s most significant failure is on the level of performance. Malick films an actor the same way he would an animal or a stalk of wheat, looking for the essence of his camera subject. In the past, this has worked wonderfully. There are great performances in almost all of Malick’s films, from Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen in Badlands through Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life. However, in To the Wonder, Malick’s actors fail him. Looking for the essence of Ben Affleck, Malick finds … nothing. Kurylenko and McAdams are nearly as vague. Even the best actor in the cast, Javier Bardem, appears undefined and uncomfortable.
To the Wonder is the most impressionistic and avant-garde of Malick’s films to date, having more in common with the work of “underground” filmmakers like Jonas Mekas or Gregory Markopoulos than with conventional Hollywood narratives. While it may feel unsatisfying as a self-contained feature film, To the Wonder can be appreciated as one chapter in an ongoing saga – like one of Mekas’s autobiographical “Diaries, Notes, and Sketches,” or one of the lesser passages in Walt Whitman’s massive poem-cycle, “Leaves of Grass,” that the poet added to and revised throughout the entirety of his artistic life.