Makes you wonder
Another cinematic challenge from Hollywood’s auteur
As might be expected from Terrence Malick (arguably the most respected filmmaker currently working within the Hollywood system), To the Wonder isn’t exactly an entertaining movie in the traditional sense, with its lack of traditional narrative a potential stumbling block for the casual viewer. While this writer-director actually does strip down the narrative to its most fundamental form, he respects his audience enough to know he doesn’t have to footnote all his themes. Or maybe the creator of The Tree of Life, The New World and The Thin Red Line is just making movies to entertain himself.
The story isn’t complex: French single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) falls in rapture with Neil, a mouth-breathing American (Ben Affleck) who uproots her and her young daughter to forge a new life … in Oklahoma. Obviously the daughter is not thrilled because who in the futz would trade Paris for Oklahoma?
Anyway, after the ardor cools and things start to get rough, their paths cross with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest (and fellow Euro ex-pat) who is suffering his own share of doubt. Things melt down, Marina and child fly back to Paris, and Neil hooks up with a nice Christian cowgirl named Jane (Rachel McAdams). Ardor cools for Neil again, and Marina flies back to marry him and score a green card for herself. And … well, not much else happens.
The narrative here serves only as a life-support system for Malick’s allegory. And since he doesn’t exactly underline or highlight his themes, they are pretty much subjective. But To the Wonder offers a cornucopia of ideas for viewers to debate afterward.
Allegorically speaking, Malick draws a nice parallel between the crazy-making rapture of new love and the soul-orgasm of finding Christ, and how as the passion cools both can be mistaken for a crisis of faith. Being apathetic about love and religion in equal measure, I thought it was a neat parallel, but not something I’m compelled to give much thought to. I’m sure that, with repeated viewings, there would be much, much more to unearth and decipher.
Subtext aside, there’s also the problem of the characters not being all that compelling. Marina relies a little heavily on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, although admittedly she’s a more manic-depressive version who leaves pixie dust on the emotional barricade that separates her from Neil.
Cowgirl Jane is just a sketch, although refreshingly not a caricature. And it’s unclear why either woman finds Neil compelling company. He’s just a side of beef who bides his time brooding. Maybe that was the point. At least he pays the bills, metaphorically speaking.
Stylistically, To the Wonder is more a mosaic than a movie, a sermon rather than a strict narrative. Characters drift through the proceedings in voiceover, and visually it plays like a home movie shot by someone with a brilliant eye for composition—albeit one who uses more slow zooms than a Ken Burns documentary. It’s not a bad movie, but I have no interest in watching it again. Some folks will probably find it brilliant. If nothing else, it’s one challenging fish in an ocean of bottom-feeders.