To the Wonder

To the Wonder
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Stars: Ben Affleck (Neil), Olga Kurylenko (Marina), Rachel McAdams (Jane), Javier Bardem (Father Quintana), Tatiana Chiline (Tatiana), Romina Mondello (Anna), Tony O’Gans (Sexton), Charles Baker (Carpenter), Marshall Bell (Bob)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2013
Country: U.S.To the Wonder
To the WonderTerrence Malick’s To the Wonder is the reclusive auteur’s second film in three years, which for him is a turnaround of almost astonishing speed, suggesting that he has hit a fount of artistic inspiration or else he feels that his life is drawing to a close and he must make the best of every second available to him. Either way, the sense of urgency that is compelling him to produce films at such a rapid pace—remember that it was a full two decades between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) and another seven years between that film and The New World (2005)—is not affecting his cinematic vision, which remains decidedly fixed in a ruminative, philosophical/poetic art-film aesthetic of fragmented abstraction, which either drives you deeper into the film to find its meaning or simply drives you away.

At its best, To the Wonder plays like a companion piece to The Tree of Life (2011), Malick’s Palm d’Or-winning masterpiece and arguably the culmination of his art—a hard act to follow, indeed. Both films are semi-autobiographical and take place in locations where Malick spent his childhood and young adulthood (Waco, Texas and Central Oklahoma, respectively), although at times the similarities make To the Wonder feel like The Tree of Life’s little brother—comparable in spirit, but smaller in effect; visually beautiful, but narratively less ambitious; sprawling, but not always in a way that conveys the magnitude of existence. It is, in the end, a decidedly mixed bag, an experiment in fragmented, impressionistic storytelling that keeps its characters just a bit too far out of reach, their symbolic qualities trumping their flesh-and-blood passions. Malick at his best merges the intensely intellectual with the intensely emotional, and here the balance feels slightly off.

Like Days of Heaven and The New World, To the Wonder is centers on a love triangle, albeit not in the traditional vein of Hollywood romance. The film follows the relationship of Neil (Ben Affleck), an environmental inspector who lives in Oklahoma, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mother from Paris who moves to the States along with her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) in order to be with him. However, as in those previous films, human love is shown to be a messy, conflicted, sometimes even violent endeavor, as Neil and Marina go through their ups and downs, are tempted by others (he by an old flame played by Rachel McAdams and she by a carpenter player by Charles Baker), are driven apart, and are then drawn back together again. Malick frames their affair within a larger story involving a priest played by Javier Bardem who is striving to do God’s work, especially among the disaffected and poor, but at times questions his own faith. His explicitly religious crisis reflects the existential alienation of Neil and Marina, thus tying them all together in the quest for true meaning and fulfillment.

Malick conveys the rapturous nature of Neil and Marina’s initial love affair almost entirely through his actors’ eyes and body language (it is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film, as there is barely any dialogue), while whispered voice-over narration supplements the physical and visual with the philosophical and religious. Malick has been slowly refining his use of the voice-over, shifting from the explicit, character-centered commentary in Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven to an increasingly abstract effect in which the voice-over, while emanating from characters on-screen, reflects not just inner thoughts, but an unfolding discourse about the place of humanity in the larger universe. He achieved a kind of perfection with it in The Tree of Life, which merged the intimate with the cosmic in whispers and prayers, so it’s no knock to say he doesn’t develop it any further here, but rather uses it in much the same way. The tremulous ruminations we hear feel as if they are emanating from the character’s souls, rather than their minds, which gives the film a sense of spiritual depth that turns the unfolding domestic drama into a portrait of humankind’s separation from God, which Malick further underscores in scenes involving the destruction of the local environment via pollution and mining (one of the most memorable images follows Neil as he stumbles through what looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape near his housing development). It is no small detail that Neil’s job is to investigate the source of pollution, as the film continually draws us back to its underlying theme that the source of conflict in the world is our increasing separation from the divine.

Once again working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who previous shot The Tree of Life and The New World, Malick has created nothing if not a film of exquisite visual rapture, one that finds ethereal beauty in the most commonplace of environments via the unique qualities of natural light, especially that light found at magic hour. Much of the film unfolds in a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood that has been carved out of the Oklahoma grasslands, and one of the film’s recurring visual motifs is the sharp divide between the well-manicured yards and the wild, untamed grassland just beyond the fence; they’re like two alien worlds butting up against each other. The sheer banality of the houses and streets underscores the dwindling connection between Neil and Marina as they drift apart, while more romanticized locations such as the medieval Mont Saint-Michel monastery in Normandy or the Midwest’s endless fields of wild grass that are still home to the continent’s dwindling buffalo population play as backdrop to intensity of feeling, whether it be love or lust. The story unfolds in fragments and elliptical returns to previous moments, and we are left to piece much of it together for ourselves. The challenge is to find meaning in what at first glance seems scattered, even unfocused, and those who give themselves over to this fascinating, flawed film (multiple times, I would imagine) might just find something genuinely transcendental.

Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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