To the Wonder: Malick Being Malick

by Ethan Alter April 12, 2013 8:00 am
<i>To the Wonder</i>: Malick Being Malick

If you're not already a card-carrying member in the cult of Terrence Malick, I'm not sure that I'd use To the Wonder as a recruitment tool, as this slender wisp of a romantic drama represents both the director's simplest, yet strangely most complex work to date. Gone are the beautifully rendered period backdrops that defined Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, as well as the grand cosmic questions that fueled his last, most divisive film, The Tree of Life. Instead, much like his debut feature, Badlands (recently re-issued in a must-own Criterion Blu-ray edition), Wonder is the small-scale story of two people in love, whose affair is destined to end badly. But where Badlands recounts a relatively straightforward narrative (for Malick, anyway), Wonder pushes his late-career trend towards abstraction and ellipticism well past what may be the breaking point for most viewers, even amongst his most devoted fans. It's not necessarily a difficult film to watch, but it does prove somewhat difficult to love.

Originally filmed during Malick's marathon three-year editing room stint on Tree of Life (and, in fact, some Tree footage apparently found its way into this film), To the Wonder is actually a continuation of some of the themes that the director explored to such potent effect in The New World. That film, of course, depicted the British colonization of 17th century America and dealt with what the fresh, unspoiled land represented to the new arrivals. To the Wonder is another immigrant story, one set in the contemporary United States, making this the first Malick movie to take place entirely in the present day. The first of these immigrants is Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian-born, Paris-based single mother who falls for American tourist Neil (Ben Affleck) during his extended trip to France and accepts his invitation to come and live with him in his small Oklahoma town. The second is the town's visiting Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who tirelessly devotes himself to helping those too poor or too infirm to help themselves.

Both Marina and Quintana came to America with great love in their hearts -- she for Neil and he for God -- and grand hopes in their heads, but quickly run up against the harsh realities of their respective situations. In Marina's case, it turns out that Neil has major commitment issues and steadily, almost purposefully drifts away from her almost immediately after she moves into his house. As for Quintana, he finds it difficult to accept that, no matter how hard he works, he'll never truly be able to end all the suffering and need in his corner of the world. With their dual faiths rattled, both try to understand their place in this new world and rediscover that initial sense of hope and wonder... a process that involves such trademark Malick touches as staring soulfully off into the distance, mumbling half-formed thoughts in voiceover and running and/or twirling through fields of waving grass bathed in the glow of the magic hour sun.

It's all too easy to make fun of these familiar Malick flourishes, especially now that he's gone from being an object of fascination during his two-decade retirement to an active, working filmmaker. In a way, To the Wonder feels calculated to deliberately enrage those people who are already convinced that this particular emperor has no clothes. Three-act storytelling has never been Malick's strong suit -- or, in fact, his guiding interest -- and Wonder is his least structured work to date, freely roaming through this landscape, introducing and abandoning plot threads at will. (Rachel McAdams, for example, appears as Neil's rebound romance after his initial split with Marina, only to vanish not long after she's introduced. And even though Bardem's character is clearly intended to parallel to Kurylenko, his total amount of screentime is considerably smaller. But hey, at least they both made the final cut! Rachel Weisz shot a role for the film that's been completely excised.) It doesn't help that Neil and Marina prove to be Malick's least interesting romantic couple, both due to the thinness of their emotional conflict and Affleck's distracted, halting performance, which may suit the character to a certain extent, but doesn't come across like an intentional acting choice. His co-star fares significantly better; Kurylenko has largely been a gorgeous blank in her Hollywood roles -- including her stint as a Bond Girl in Quantum of Solace -- and while I wouldn't say she's playing a fully fleshed-out character here either, she effectively inhabits Malick's very specific, highly idealized version of the Earth Mother: a woman who feels, sees and understands more deeply than the men in her life because of her connection to the natural world.

If To the Wonder isn't quite as grand and enveloping a tone poem as The Tree of Life and The New World (which remains my personal favorite of Malick's films to date), it is still distinguished by some remarkably lyrical passages and a unique approach to the craft of filmmaking that many directors have tried to imitate, yet none can convincingly master. And even though the movie may look like phoned-in Malick on first glance, upon closer inspection the director is still trying new things, from the present-day setting to the film's earthy sexuality (sex has always lingered around the edges of the frame in Malick's past work; here it's made more explicit -- in a tasteful way, of course -- with several scenes of the stars romping around naked in the bedroom) to its impressionistic editing scheme, where the cuts are dictated by music and movement rather than narrative. Granted, you already have to be a fan of Malick to want to look past the movie's somewhat bland surface. But if you do, you might experience some of the wonder promised by the title.

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