"To the Wonder" Throwback Review
Terrence Malick is probably one of the more divisive filmmakers today. He’s ambitious and doesn’t play by the rules of traditional cinema. His films are hard to understand and can either be hit or miss depending on who you are. Considered by many as one of his misses, To the Wonder is an experimental film by Malick that doesn’t quite grasp what he achieved with The Tree of Life. However, To the Wonder is a beautiful film that is a feast for the eyes and a serenade for the ears.
The film tracks the difficult relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck), an American, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French woman. They fall in love in France, and after some time move to Neil’s home state of Oklahoma. Problems arise quickly as Marina realizes that Oklahoma is way less populated and social as Paris, which puts a strain on her happiness and relationship with Neil. The strain is further compounded when Neil reunites with a former love, Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Also living in Oklahoma is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). He’s a Spanish priest who has had his faith tested recently and is trying to once again find meaning.
What I described above was all the plot in this 112-minute film. Fortunately for the viewer, Malick is the master of show, don’t tell. He’s not concerned with details or building up the characters (the names are never really revealed), he’s focused on central themes such as love and forgiveness.
Events play out in a dream-like sequence, almost like someone is remembering pieces of their past. Parts of this film are indeed autobiographical since Malick, the writer as well as director, had a French wife and lived in the midwest with her. There appears to be a lack of cohesiveness, but that is made up for through the emotional connection each scene shares. The characters engage and eventually interact with each other as time goes on. We get to know the characters more by their actions instead of their words.
Veteran Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki helmed the camera for this film and did an amazing job. He brilliantly uses the camera to track the movement of the characters and gets uncomfortably close to them so we can see all their inner emotions. Natural light is heavily used as the Oklahoma sun shines bright, creating a beautiful film with multiple shots worthy of a gallery show.
No one in this film really acts, they only do. It feels as if Malick told the actors to just do things and have the camera follow them. There’s never a moment where they are not doing something important to the story through their actions.
Narration is substituted for dialogue here just like it was for The Tree of Life and Song to Song. On-screen dialogue is rare as we get most of our information from inner monologues each character delivers. It’s hard to follow at times, but it's effective as it emphasizes the themes of personal struggle and love.
To the Wonder is Terrence Malick at his most Malick. His use of minimal dialogue and plot can be considered boring and shallow to some, but this film should not be compared to others, instead, it should be celebrated as a gorgeous piece of cinema that is both unique and thought-provoking.