With The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder my patience for the ponderous repetition of Terrence Malick's images has stretched too thin. The mystique that he built up around himself, creating two excellent films in the '70s and then disappearing for 20 years, is where is films are slowly disappearing into. I echo Danny's sentiment in his The Tree of Life review that it is lazy to call films pretentious. But after watching To The Wonder I would be hard pressed to find fault with someone describing it like that.
To the Wonder is a story of love gone astray. Neil (Ben Affleck) falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while he is vacationing in Europe. Back home in the States, he is an environmental inspector who goes to construction sites to test the soil and see what kind of contamination is affecting the landscape. Very few occupations scream metaphor as much as Neil's does, because his concern for the lands despite their toxicity is a polarized version of the way Neil approaches his relationships. He means well, but his touch is a disaster to those he comes into contact with.
Neil, Marina, and Marina's daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) move back to the States where they each begin to feel isolated from one another. Malick reinforces this by having each character speak their thoughts in their native tongue. We hear the least from Neil, but Marina's thoughts Slavic tones dominate the soundtrack, eventually joined by the Spanish thoughts of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), whose sermons Marina turns to in her deepest isolation. During all this Neil takes another lover while Marina is away, an old friend named Jane (Rachel McAdams). From land to person, Neil just can't seem to connect emotionally in the way his caresses can physically.
The disconnect between the characters that we are presented I do understand, but Malick's meandering poetic ways get the best of the film this time. He's still a risky filmmaker in that he shoots multiple story lines for the same film and then cuts entire roles and plot lines out. It's not to his benefit this time around. Father Quintana is too far removed from the conflict that Neil and Marina, and while I appreciated the empathy shown in the Father's trips to the prison to comfort the inmates, it feels at odds to the story that dominates the film. Neither Neil, Marina, nor Jane are prisoners to their emotions or decisions, and indulge in their freedom multiple times throughout the film, so reinforcing that the Father is a good man, while nice, doesn't really flow with the story.
Whatever disconnect is present in the story is not as badly portrayed in the visuals, but Malick's gift for heavenly, drifting images is indulged to the point of self-parody. It's too easy to indulge in the observation that his films are nothing but arty shots of clouds and wheat when there are roughly 10 different sequences of Neil and his lover of the moments frolicking through fields. Malick also seems to have developed a taste for flowing drapery after his work on The Tree of Life because if Neil isn't playing around in fields, one of the women always seem stuck in drapes during the perpetually cool summer permeates his world.
This imagery, repetitious at best and tired at worst, combines with the most banal dialogue of his career. Lines like, "What is this love that loves us?" and "I'd never hoped to love again" are what finally pushed me into pure dislike. I realize that dialogue has never been Malick's strongest point, but the thoughts presented play out like Existential Love Crisis 101. They're the most simple recreations of complex emotions which, combined with the endless parade of fields and draperies, even when they're in the city, is deeply unsatisfying. The low point is when Marina is walking around with her friend, who is the most stereotypical rendition of a "live for the moment" personality, screaming that she wants to be surprised by someone.
Surprise is what this films lacks. It's the most straightforward narrative of Malick's career and one that could not satisfy someone coming into his films for the first time. For those of us who have continued to watch his poetic meanderings is does not satisfy. It is not asking huge questions like The Tree of Life, but asking "What is love?" is a question he has answered many times in films before, just not at such a simple level.
Screenplay written and directed by Terrence Malick.
Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams.