To The Wonder has proven itself as Terrence Malick‘s most critically disliked film to date. Malick’s sprawling epic, The Tree of Life, was met with scoffs, but Wonder has been met with snickers and laughs. The hype and conversations spurred by The Tree of Life were exciting, which hasn’t been the case for Malick’s newest movie, and it’s easy to see why. For both good and bad, his sixth film symbolizes everything we expect from the filmmaker.
The good, at least for non-Malick fans, is that To The Wonder is a simple, mostly linear story. The two leads, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), are madly in love. Neil, from Oklahoma, strikes up a passionate relationship with Marina while traveling Europe with the graceful Ukrainian woman. Of course Neil can’t live overseas with her forever, so he decides to bring Marina and her 10-year-old daughter back to Oklahoma with him. For a while, it goes smoothly. Then it doesn’t. Then it does. And it continues on like that for sometime.
Neil and Marine struggle to maintain the passion they first had. When the going gets tough, Marina and her daughter return home. After they depart, Neil runs into a familiar face from his past in Jane (Rachel McAdams). A relationship begins, but sputters out fast. Neil’s commitment issues are his downfall in both scenarios, and it makes for the most compelling part of Affleck’s performance. He’s a guy destined never to return “to the wonder.” Once Jane leaves his life, Marina reenters. Also making an appearance in none of their lives, with a few minor exceptions, is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). What is his connection to Neil and Marina? The answer to that question is more subtle than the rest of the movie.
Most times Malick just can’t help himself from hamming up his own trademarks. When Marina returns to France she’s shot alone in rainy, dark environments. Malick paints a strikingly isolating portrait of her conflicting situation, making for potentially stirring drama that he goes on to undercut. When Marina struts along those cold streets, she declares, “I feel stripped bare.” If a viewer isn’t smart enough to figure that out for themselves, the writer/director vocally blares the idea with lines like those. It’s as if Malick the writer doesn’t trust Malick the director to communicate everything he has to visually.
As such, To the Wonder is a smorgasbord of Malickness. There’s the heightened narration, sweeping imagery, characters staring off in anguish, and so on and so on. All of that is well and good, but the narration Malick makes his actors and the film suffer through is not. Not only does he appear to distrust himself, but also his actors. Affleck, Kurylenko, McAdams, and Bardem have to overcome any inner-thought Malick wrote for them to slog through. Everything the narrations communicate to the audience could and should have simply come from the actors acting. They’re good performances, and either Malick doesn’t see that or he’s too afraid to let go of his precious words.
A version without all that narration would most likely be quite beautiful, although maybe more puzzling where Javier Bardem’s presence is concerned. Thematically speaking, Father Quintana fits. He’s a character whose main passion and environment is falling apart. Marina, Neil, and the lonely priest are connected in their love-hate relationships. Beyond that, his storyline is out of a different and better movie. He’s a religious man questioning his commitment to God, and that arc suits a full feature instead of a shoed-in character arc.
So much about To the Wonder is forced, with Malick strangling the beauty on display with his own agenda. It’s riddled with ideas, images, and moments that are engaging, but rarely satisfying as a whole. To the Wonder shouldn’t be passed off as”self-parody,” but as Malick’s self-destructed misfire. He has two promising stories in his hands that he never puts together in a convincing, emotionally compelling way.
The Upside: A trio of commendable performances; Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeously elegant cinematography even makes Sonic look incredible; occasionally reaches its ambition; Malick’s grasp on the power of people dancing in fields
On the Side: The narration is maddening in its obviousness; “the script” doesn’t trust its audience, actors, or director; Malick’s most clinical movie to date; crumbles with more reflection
On the Side: Barry Pepper, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, and Rachel Weisz were all cut out of the film. Weisz played Neil’s sister, who’s briefly mentioned.