Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’ has good intentions but paves a road of puzzlement
By A.O. SCOTTNew York Times News Service – Wednesday, May 1, 2013
3 (out of five stars)
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chiline, Romina Mondello
Rated: R for some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
In Terrence Malick’s films, it usually is possible to discern, beneath the blossoms of metaphor and the philosophical foliage, the trellis of a more or less conventional plot.
“The Thin Red Line” is a combat picture. “The Tree of Life” is a nostalgic coming-of-age story. And “To the Wonder,” Malick’s latest, is a romantic melodrama whose major characters fall tragically and beautifully in and out of love.
Their narrative proceeds in a straight line and is easy enough to follow. In France, an Oklahoman named Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian expatriate with a 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). We first encounter Neil and Marina in the bliss of early infatuation and in endlessly picturesque (if also somewhat familiar) settings. Paris is a wonderland for cinematographers, and Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s director of photography (who also shot “The Tree of Life” and “The New World”), revels in the city’s limestone buildings, cobbled streets and classical symmetries of its gardens. A trip west to Mont Saint-Michel is like a visit to heaven itself, as the spires and buttresses of the cathedral and the tidal flats that surround it are rendered in one glorious composition after another.
Malick is committed, as a matter of quasi-religious principle and aesthetic temperament, to finding beauty everywhere. When Marina and Tatiana follow Neil back to Oklahoma, “To the Wonder” spins visual poetry not only out of prairies and creek beds but also out of less obviously sublime facts of the landscape, like suburban subdivisions, concrete parking structures and supermarkets. Nothing drab, ugly or ordinary can exist in this world.
All the same, Marina, who occupies herself running through fields in golden sunlight, finds rapture hard to sustain. Her malaise is mirrored by the struggle of a priest (Javier Bardem) to hold on to his faith. Marina and her daughter return to France, and Neil takes up with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a rancher he knew in childhood.
The man pursued by two emphatically contrasted women — brunette and blonde, exotic and domestic, impetuous and practical — is an ancient literary archetype, which may be a polite way of saying a cliche.
Neil seems to be decent, moody and, above all, indecisive. At one point, the priest reflects on the sinfulness of refusing to make a choice, and while he is condemning himself, Neil is implicated as well, since he cannot fully devote himself to either of the women who adore him. Women in Malick’s films tend to love intuitively and completely, if not always happily, while men equivocate and brood, occasionally erupting in anger or frustration.
But “To the Wonder” is no more concerned with the psychology of heterosexual relationships than it is with standard dramatized action. As usual, Malick minimizes dialogue, preferring to communicate ideas and emotions through voice-over, montage and music. (Hanan Townshend’s tense, fluid score is supplemented by selections from the 19th- and 20th-century classical repertory.) The director’s methods serve the film’s theme, which is the tension, the imperfect alignment, between human love and its divine correlative. Marina speaks more than once of “the love that loves us,” echoing the priest’s longing to feel the connection to God identified, in the Christian tradition, as grace.
Malick takes theology seriously and tries to give its impulses a visual form. His camera, swinging upward from earth to sky, traces a path from the sensual to the spiritual, and his men and women are blessed and cursed to inhabit both realms at once.
In “The Tree of Life” he managed to endow the details of individual lives with genuine awe and afford even skeptics a view of existence from the perspective of eternity.
“To the Wonder” gestures toward the same kind of transcendence but falls short. This is partly because the human situation in the center of the film does not quite support its philosophical scaffolding and partly because the images do not in themselves possess the evocative power Malick intends them to have.
Images of Neil’s work sampling soil and water at industrial sites and of poor and disabled Oklahomans appear as tokens rather than expressions of social and environmental concern. And the torsos and the sun-dappled fields look more commercial than cosmic, as if plucked from advertisements.
This is not entirely Malick’s fault, and his insistence on finding a cinematic idiom that connects beauty to ultimate truth is noble and sincere. But the intentions of “To the Wonder” pave a road to puzzlement, not awe.