To The Wonder (2012)
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem and Rachel McAdams
The process of financing and marketing a major motion picture often requires the attachment of a bankable high-profile actor. In the case of Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life, getting Brad Pitt as the lead actor put the film on the radar of mainstream moviegoers. Whether big stars produce big office results is another story altogether; it certainly wasn’t the case with The Rum Diaries starring Johnny Depp.
I tend to follow the films of directors I admire more so than big name actors. Of the few films I’ve seen directed by Malick, I regard them as challenging and evocative works of art. Tree of Life is a movie that’s off the beaten path for me but I deeply connected with it. For these reasons, I’m curious if Malick’s follow up film To The Wonder would be another hidden gem.
To the Wonder’s story begins with an American man living in Paris who moves back to the U.S. with his French-Russian girlfriend and her young daughter. Filmed without a conventional shooting script, the narrative could be described as free-flowing. However, there is a trajectory on where the story goes, somewhat like the white lines on a long winding highway.
To describe what the film is about isn’t straightforward because I’m honestly not sure. The focal point is a relationship built on an unstable foundation which gradually falls apart. This is explored in a way which allows the audience to examine the choices and sacrifices individuals must make to be committed in love. The value of marriage as an intuition as well as a legal and moral obligation is another aspect which is explored.
An on-going element in some of Malick’s films is the depiction of America. In To The Wonder, there is a stark contrast between the majestic beauty of Paris – the art, the architecture, the city streets, compared with suburban USA. The soil in which the small town is built upon is poisoned with heavy metals which Affleck’s character discovers in his job as a surveyor. Figuratively, the toxicity seeps into his relationship with his new blended family living far away from their home land. “You think you’re my father. But you’re not” says his girfriend’s daughter.
If it wasn’t for the DVD’s subtitles and searching imdb.com I wouldn’t know the characters’ names because they aren’t mentioned in the movie. Olga Kurylenko plays Marina, the love interest for Affleck’s character named Neil. I presume she’s a dancer because there are many scenes where she randomly pirouettes in the drug store, in the fields, just about anywhere. Kurylenko is extremely photogenic; the camera loves her and Malick does not let us forget her natural beauty. As stunning as she is, her small delicate stature makes it’s difficult to picture her as Wonder Woman, a role she lost out to Gal Gadot.
Although I commend Affleck for working with an experimental director, the next Batman is out of his element here. To The Wonder incorporates a lot of voice-over narration in various languages by a few different characters so there is very little dialogue for Affleck to chew on. Unfortunately, his performance in To The Wonder doesn’t disprove the adage that Affleck is at his best when he’s directing himself.
The supporting actors fare better than Affleck. Javier Bardem’s performance is finely subtle as a Spanish pastor who’s lost the fervour in his calling. Bardem’s scenes are understated yet hold their weight. The pastor’s brief sermons inform the spirituality permeating the film without it becoming obtrusive. In a limited role, Rachel McAdams plays Neil’s childhood friend whose horse ranch goes into bankruptcy. Whether she’s reigning in her lover with a rope or smiling topless beneath the billowing bed sheets, McAdams is positively radiant.
The characters are exquisitely framed by Malick’s gorgeous cinematography and attention to detail. When I think about Malick’s directorial approach David Bowie’s lyric “don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision” comes to mind, at least in a literal sense. The visuals, for example the way the sunlight catches a character’s hair or how the low tidal wave sweeps over the muddied shore, is as significant to the film as the plot. The sound effects are equally lush but never distracting which adds to the overall feast of sensations.
At times, I can’t help but to wonder if Malick is deliberately pushing the limits of the cinematic experience. We can watch the motion images play on the screen, listen to the ethereal score but become acutely aware when we can’t smell the perfume Marina sprays or taste the blossoming tree buds that she licks. Marina is a tactile person, she touches and interacts with her surroundings like a toddler. There’s also moments where the dialogue, few and far in between in this film, is cut off and at one pivotal point is muted.
Although there is a great level of attention to the sensory experience, where the movie falters is the lack of emotional resonance with the story and characters. It’s hard to care about the fragility of relationships or the emptiness of a new lustful romance because I’m not invested in Neil or his lovers. For better or worse, the director’s objective approach is to avoid over-sentimentality and to minimize Neil’s characterization.
Other than the cinematography, I find it challenging to fully appreciate To The Wonder. The film lacks the same awe and wonder I experienced while watching Tree of Life. Neither did I feel the ache of lost love or a deeper, meaningful connection to the world. Maybe if I watch this film again in a few years, I’ll be better able to reconcile what I wanted from this film with Malick’s ambitious vision. For now, I’ll only lightly recommend this for open-minded cinephiles who’d enjoy a gorgeously shot art film.