Oh, they’re in love. Terribly, terribly in love. They’re that gross couple you roll your eyes at because they think they’re the first ones to be so over the moon with each other. Ugh.
The movie opens with obligatory montage of just how very happy Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) are. It reminds me a bit of a french, pretentious (redundant?) version of how Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind begins, which immediately makes me feel like this won’t end well. Marina and her daughter move from Paris to Oklahoma and for some reason nobody suspects that this will be a jarring downgrade. I visited both within 2 months ago and yeah, not comparable no matter how much Affleck peen you’re getting. The only thing worse than her syrupy narration is his whispery one. Careful you don’t strain your eyes from rolling them deep backward into the dark recesses of your brain.
And then she burns the dinner! Oh, should I have said: spoiler aleart! Spoiler alert, the reality of every day life together starts to cool their ardour a bit. And the further apart they drift, the more she turns toward fellow exile and Catholic priest (Javier Bardem) and he gravitates toward an old flame (Rachel McAdams).
Is now a good time to mention that this is a Terrence Malick film? It was released just a year after Tree of Life (only his 6th feature in 40 years) and is also semi-autobiographical, the first of his films to be set entirely in modern day. There was no script, just pages and pages of thoughts. The actors were simply told to play the emotions without speaking and while there’s plenty of voice over, there is hardly any dialogue.
What can I say about Terrence Malick other than he’s a polarizing film maker. He’s certainly a visionary but critics can’t seem to agree if he’s a genius or a bit of a dullard. When it played at the Venice Film Festival, it was met with both boos and cheers.
Malick must commit tonnes of footage to film. In post-production he creates and hacks in equal measure, sometimes losing entire characters (Kurylenko made him promise that Marina would remail in the film, but supporting roles featuring Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Shannon all ended up on the editing room floor). His imagery is beautiful, and this particular cake is frosted with generous dollops of religion. He’s exploring love in different ways and settings. This isn’t a narrative, it isn’t a story, it’s more a philosophical treatise on love. If you know Malick, then you’re used to the stylistic montages, though this one feels more fragmentary than most.
Just between you and me, I think Malick’s movies are getting increasingly masturbatory as we go along. He loves his long, meandering shots, and who cares whether they’re actually pertinent to the “plot”? Plot? Hahaha. Plot. Is this meditation or pretension? There’s a lot here that can be only experienced intuitively, which makes it quite demanding of its viewer.
This was the very last movie review that Roger Ebert submitted before his death; it was published posthumously 2 days later. Ebert was in his last days and must have known it (have you seen Life Itself?). His reading of the film is a rather spiritual one:
“A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.
“Well,” I asked myself, “why not?” Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?
There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”