Synopsis: After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina and Neil come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane. (Source)
With To The Wonder, director Terrence Malick is trying to reach transcendence not only spiritually, but narratively. No longer interested in telling stories through linear means or scripted actions/dialogue, his latest film plays like a loose set of events, made meaningful through their raw, evocative power rather than their surface value. If you’re looking for something that you can be entertained by, this is not that film. In fact, because of what Malick is trying to achieve, you have to watch it in a different light, as more of an introspective art piece or journal of a man trying to decipher the wonder that the film hints at. No easy answers will come, and though it’s individual moments are more potent than the whole, as an experience, it boasts an honesty and sincerity that we rarely ever see anymore.
Building off the most basic of ideas, the story is about an environmental inspector named Neil (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while vacationing in Paris. The two instantly fall in love and Neil takes both Marina and her daughter back to Oklahoma to start a life together. There, the uprooted Marina begins to feel lonely as Neil’s work begins to separate them along with a few other complications. In addition, Neil begins to rekindle a relationship with a childhood friend named Jane (Rachel McAdams). Through it all they encounter a Catholic priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who is struggling through a crisis of faith.
Shot without a real script and containing almost no direct dialogue, the film plays more like lyrical poetry than a story that can be easily digested. Here, Malick is looking at how hard it is to sustain that perfect moment of clarity and peace, whether it’s with a lover or through faith in a higher being. Juxtaposing the difficulty of two lovers’ ability to maintain a relationship and a priest who is losing his way, Malick creates intimate portraits of people trying to find happiness where it seems almost impossible to. The film is an exploration that either relationship will never be easy or take the route they think it should.
Since Malick’s films have definitely become a genre of their own, everything you love/hate about his style here is amplified to the max, the voice overs, acrobatic camera work, and nature metaphors, all creating a loose narrative around stray, trivial actions to create a bigger whole. Because all these techniques have been amped up here, it’s definitely something that you might have to acclimate to, even if it’s a welcome challenge. You also have to admire the way that the film deliberately takes a maddeningly slow and quiet approach, forcing you to escape the fast pace of everyday life to think about the invisible meaning and circumstance of it all. Helping to lock all of it into place is creative collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki’s vibrant photography.
With Malick using actors like colors on a paintbrush, the person he focuses on the most is Olga Kurylenko’s Marina. She’s the heart and soul of the film, carrying it with grace, frailty, innocence and purity. She never feels like she’s really acting, but rather living out every situation from peaceful to frantic, conveying an unwitting lucidity with each delicate action. It’s a shame that she doesn’t get much meaty roles like this one, because she proves here that she can handle it with ease. Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck barely have any direct dialogue in the film and are there just to provide different moods and ideas, while Bardem’s priest is the character that feels the least fleshed out.
No matter what, To the Wonder is brave film because of how personal it feels. You can’t help but see the entire thing as Malick himself trying to put together life’s puzzle and still not figuring it out completely. This kind of transparent filmmaking will make you mad or fascinated; either way, it’s not something that can be totally dismissed. If there’s one person capable of coming close to capturing the intangible and spiritual side of things, it’s Malick. To the Wonder is challenging, sad, hopeful and makes us think about things bigger than ourselves. If it’s a failed experiment to some, it’s still a noble one, and there’s no denying that it achieves many things worth applauding.
Crome Rating: 4/5