To the Wonder is a visual marvel to look at but its ambiguous form makes it frustratingly impenetrable at times.
To the Wonder
Considering that Terrence Malick has never put out consecutive films less than five years apart, one time it was two decades, putting out a film only a year after Tree of Life is very uncharacteristic. Rumor has it that the prolific director is actually working on several films right at the moment. The sudden surge of urgency is unknown, but very welcoming. To the Wonder shares the same narrative style as Tree of Life by showing but never telling the story. Often situations are suggested or hinted at but never quite fully spelled out, forcing the viewer to read between the lines. To the Wonder is even more subtle and less cohesive than Tree of Life, so if you struggled with that on Tree of Life, this film will likely produce similar results.
At the beginning Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) wander the French coast madly in love with one another. They explore the beautiful cathedral at Mont St. Michel which they call the Wonder and clasp their hands together at what ends up being the pinnacle peak of their relationship. Shortly after that Neil must relocate back to the States and convinces Marina and her little daughter to move with him. The flat countryside landscape of Oklahoma is a stark contrast to the city life in Paris Marina is used to. Not only does Marina not fit in to her new surroundings but her relationship with Neil is unraveling with each passing moment.
The couple drifts away from each other for no specific reason other than they never quite seem to be on the same beat of the drum. Malick wonderfully symbolizes this in a shot when the couple are on different floors of their home walking into separate rooms. But they are not the only ones in a crucial crossroad in their lives. A local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) preaches the word of God to others but seems to have little direction or happiness in his own life. What these characters have in common is that they are searching for something that is only felt and not seen. In Marina’s case it is love that she is searching for, while the priest is pursuing his faith.
To the Wonder borrows many of the aesthetics found in Tree of Life. The camera always seems to be moving along with the characters, rarely ever is it stationary. Many similar objects appear in both films such as; beautiful stained glass churches, plenty of nature shots of trees and water, and heavy focus on the emotional reactions of the lead actors. Also similar is that the dialog takes a back seat to the stunning visuals of Malick’s visual poetry that is set against a perfectly chosen score. Most of the dialog will cut out mid-way through a sentence, as if the words are not really worth hearing.
Like most of Malick’s films, To the Wonder will not be for everyone. In fact, it may not even be for most. What might frustrate some viewers is how elusive the film is. Being that it features detached characters that are all looking for some intangible item makes the film seem very distant. Malick mostly succeeds at the impossible task of capturing these intangibles such as being in love and being directionless, while rarely relying on words to describe what is happening.
Affleck barely has any lines in the film and none of them were all that important. His character is withdrawn and the fact he spends most of the time in the frame, but seldom in the foreground exemplifies that. I realize that the film purposely does not give much detail about Ben, but I cannot help but wonder if a little more time was spent getting to know him would have been more beneficial. Going with a lifelike approach to its characters and their circumstances yields split results. In its favor, the film captures human nature without dramatizing anything, but it is at the cost of not having much of an emotional punch.
To the Wonder is such an absorbing film that it is not easy to form an instant opinion about it because you must let the film sink in for a while. Essentially the film is a two hour visual masterpiece with a plot that could be summed in ten seconds. Yet, even with a rather simplistic overall story, the film explores complex areas such as the dynamics of relationships, love, and faith. To the Wonder is a visual marvel to look at but its ambiguous form makes it frustratingly impenetrable at times.