To the Wonder | Movie review
Terrence Malick discovers fast food.
In the decade and a half since The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s vaunted “poetic” abstractions have come to seem less like a style than a crutch. You often get the sense his only direction to actresses is “twirl!” or “sweet nothing! sweet nothing!”—delivered with the full confidence he’ll be able to patch together any sequence in editing. The least one might say for To the Wonder is that it finds him charting new territory. There’s a bit of digital video, nudity and sex; it’s also his first feature set in the present day. This time the girl shouting “Everything is beautiful here!” does so while prancing through a supermarket. But once the shock of seeing a Sonic Drive-In in a Malick film wears off, the movie leaves little to ponder beyond the sketchily drawn romance drama at its core.
Following the cosmic ambition of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder’s introversion and modest experimentation come as a welcome departure. Barely speaking a word (like the reclusive director?), Ben Affleck stars as Neil, an Oklahoma man who falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France and brings her and her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) to the wide-open plains. But assimilating takes its toll, and when Marina’s visa runs out, Neil runs into the arms of another woman (Rachel McAdams). On the periphery, a priest (Javier Bardem) meets with the poor and delivers his own narration, posing questions in voiceover (“How long will you hide yourself?”) to a stubbornly silent God. His presence adds a hint of the social context Tree lacked, but at times his narration gives the film the uncomfortable feel of a sermon.
His notion that “the man who hesitates” misses the chance to repent perhaps offers a clue to Malick’s intentions. Said to be autobiographically inspired, the movie suggests a case of a filmmaker exorcising past demons. But the strategy of keeping characters as indistinct as possible allows Malick an easy out. Papering over any narrative hole with a shot of a wheat field or the strains of Wagner, To the Wonder itself feels hesitant. Fervent devotees will keep the faith.