By Dalton Amador
It’s impossible to talk about “To the Wonder” without bringing up Terrence Malick’s previous film, “The Tree of Life.” The ever-reclusive Malick has with each film he’s both written and directed, six in total over the last 40 years, further refined his unique style of emphasizing soft-spoken and introspective overhead narration and stationary shots of an idle outdoors over traditional plot and characterization.
This vision was taken to the extreme with “The Tree of Life,” a story ostensibly about a young boy growing up in 1950s Waco, Texas, that also contained a scene with dinosaurs. The film succeeded in spite of its many plodding segments precisely because it also had scenes of breathtaking beauty.
“To the Wonder” is more abstract and avant-garde than its predecessor, but without the dinosaurs. The maximalist vision, which proved evocative, is jettisoned. And all that’s left is the tedium.
Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are lovers in Paris. Neil invites Marina and her daughter to move back with him to his home in Oklahoma. An old fling from Neil’s past, Jane (Rachel McAdams), reappears. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a disillusioned priest in Neil’s town, gives sermons on love and its relation to Christ. Neil and Marina’s relationship endures strife as Marina and her daughter experience difficulty adjusting to the uneventful flatlands of Oklahoma after living in metropolitan Paris.
Every character goes unnamed throughout the film, only to be revealed in the credits. Affleck says about twelve lines of dialogue, despite being the film’s most prominent onscreen player. Events are muted and suppressed, revealed without exposition through the obfuscating prism of a bystander. Dialogue from various residents of the Oklahoma town—most often degenerates visited by Father Quintana—is inscrutable, and sometimes downright schizophrenic, because it is delivered without a semblance of context.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki returns for “To the Wonder,” employing the same techniques he used in “The Tree of Life.” Sweeping shots and close-ups of various body parts as characters meander and frolic avoid being awkward thanks to Lubezki’s grace with the camera. Characters become backdrops for the environments themselves. Even Oklahoma looks romantic and idyllic.
But despite the superlative camerawork and photography, the fragments tenuously stitched together provide little interest.
Reports say that the work is semi-autobiographical, the retelling of Malick’s failed marriage to a French woman.
The audience is given only the most minimal of details, though, and thereby the most minimal reason to care.
But the film never devolves into anything vapid or insubstantial, and retains a striking human element. It’s just really boring.
“To the Wonder” is a film more suitably appreciated than enjoyed. Only the most patient filmgoers, or die-hard Malick fans, will find reward.
If you go …
Running time: 113 minutes
Stars: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Release Date: April 12, 2013