To The Wonder
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams
In director Terrence Malick’s latest project, we follow the relationship between Marina, a young Frenchwoman, (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil, her American boyfriend (Ben Affleck) from Paris to Oklahoma. Their intensely passionate love struggles against the frustration and isolation that accompanies Marina’s relocation. When Marina moves back to France, Neil reconnects with a childhood flame (Rachel McAdams), whose own experiences with love and loss add another layer of solemnity and sorrow to the narration. Along the way, we briefly glimpse into the lonely life of their local priest in Oklahoma, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who currently struggles with a crisis of faith. Their intertwined stories create a heavy yet inspiring narrative on life, love, and God.
Malick uses the deliberately thin story as a light framework for presenting an assortment of scenes that jump back and forth in scale, between sweeping grandeur and intense intimacy. Too frequently do characters twirl in open fields, kiss each others’ necks, or stare moodily out their windows. The beautifully-framed shots are intended to evoke emotions or the passage of time, rather than directly express any sort of message. Malick’s skill at visual beauty is on full display here; even when the plot grinds to a halt two-thirds of the way through, the mesmerising visuals save the movie from falling apart before the story picks up again.
We don’t see the characters talk that much, and if they do, the audio is often replaced with orchestral music. Instead, they communicate with the audience via voiceover (primarily Kurylenko’s), with thoughts that are sometimes poetic and sometimes overly grandiose. Rarely do characters directly address the events unfolding before the audience’s eyes. The voiceovers resemble clips from an internal monologue and add context to the visuals or frame them in a different way. Pervasive throughout the film is the sense that we are outsiders intruding upon deeply private matters: all the actors speak in their native tongues, forcing viewers to read from subtitles. In one particularly notable scene, Kurylenko’s character converses in French with a friend (Romina Mondello) who responds in Italian. Malick seems intent on making the audience feel excluded.
It’s fitting that Terrence Malick is the most prominent name on the movie poster. Rarely are today’s films so wholly dominated by the director’s presence. Among the A-list actors, Affleck gets top billing, but even he feels like a prop. His narration is sparse, his portrayal restrained. Kurylenko, on the other hand, oscillates between ecstatic goofiness and catatonic depression. The film’s structure — brief snatches and glimpses into strangers’ lives — does not allow for the type of self-indulgent Oscar-bait performances that we’ve come to see from most serious dramas. It’s actually quite refreshing.
Unlike most movies, which spoonfeed the audience with information, To the Wonder takes patience to fully appreciate, since there’s little dialogue and even less plot. Terrence Malick invites us to admire the wonders of the world and the people around us. Should you decline that invitation, the film is easy to mock; cynics will have a field day with the dramatic voiceovers and the elusive plot. For the patient, however, To the Wonder can be a rewarding and unique cinematic experience.