Terrence Malick is treasured by film critics because he’s one of the last of a dying breed. He’s pretty much the only working American director who’s using respectable budgets to make what are more or less pure art films. While I wouldn’t call any of his films “inaccessible,” his lyrical style and unconventional narratives are left-field enough to seem rather strange to unsuspecting audiences that get drawn in by trailers which seem to promise more straightforward prestige fare. He’s a man with impeccable credibility but his latest project, To the Wonder, has been an aberration from his usual M.O. in a number of ways. For one thing, Malick managed to make and release the film a mere two years after his last project, which is by far the fastest turn-around he’s ever managed. It’s also gotten more negative buzz than one would expect to see directed against a living national treasure. The one other time that a lot of critics have turned against Malick it was when he made The New World, which may well be my favorite of all his films, so I wasn’t going to let mixed reviews deter me from giving it a chance.
The film primarily concerns itself with the relationship between a French woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and an American man named Neil (Ben Affleck), who are both already madly in love as the film begins. Marina is divorced and has a young daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from the previous marriage, and given her devout catholic faith believes she can never truly marry again. They still become very close and Marina follows Neil as he returns to his hometown in Oklahoma. The transition is not easy for Tatiana and the couple eventually drifts apart, but can they ever truly stay apart?
I liked a lot about Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, but I don’t consider it a masterpiece in part because it feels incomplete. It was a film that claimed to be a portrait of human life in its entirety but it cut off the story of its protagonist when he was, like, twelve. We didn’t see his teen years or anything of his adulthood outside of a few brief moments where he’s portrayed by actor Sean Penn. To the Wonder is not a sequel to The Tree of Life, but in some ways it picks up where that movie left off. One could imagine the young boy in The Tree of Life growing up to be a man not unlike Ben Affleck’s character in To the Wonder, and the two films share many stylistic elements in their depiction of what are essentially common lives.
That said, there are also major differences between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder as well. To the Wonder is in many ways a smaller film and eschews a lot of The Tree of Life’s more bombastic tendencies. You will not see flashbacks to the dawn or time, dinosaurs, or anything else like that here. It also isn’t told through flashbacks, it’s set in the here and now, and the story is more or less in chronological order. Do not make the mistake or thinking that any of this means that To the Wonder is going to simpler and more accessible film than The Tree of Life because To the Wonder is a film that will baffle pretty much anyone who goes into it expecting traditional storytelling. In fact it may well be the closest that Malick has ever gotten to using cinema as a form of poetry rather than as a form of prose.
Conventional dialogue is nearly non-existent in To the Wonder. There are scenes where people talk to one another, and these conversations are important, but you’ll almost never see a part of the film where the camera cuts from one over-the-shoulder shot to another as exposition is drilled into your head. This being a Malick film there is of course voice-over, but it’s more ethereal than ever and it isn’t really used as exposition either. Instead most of the storytelling is visual and is largely rooted in the body language of its two main characters. It’s not hard at all to see the relationship going from A to B to C, but given that you aren’t really privy to many of the characters’ conversations it’s not overly easy to tell why it’s following that trajectory, and to some extent the trick is to not care that you don’t understand.
In fact that’s generally true of both this entire film and most of Malick’s work. I think what throws a lot of people is that they go into his movies and sort of over-think them when they should just sit back and let his films watch over them the way you would while reading a particularly lyrical poem. The visuals here are as beautiful as they’ve ever been in a Malick film and while there are elements to the film (like Javier Bardem’s presence in it) that seem a little odd to me, but for the most part I think To the Wonder works quite well if you simply let it work. It’s not a film that I’d recommend to everybody, especially those who aren’t already fond of Malick’s style, but I’ve got to say I was entranced while watching it and I’s be happy to see Malick continue down this road of applying his magic and wisdom to everyday lives and every day places.
***1/2 out of Four