The enigmatic and mysterious Terrence Malick is a filmmaker unlike any other. Since he first stepped behind the camera in 1972 he’s made only five films but each is a masterpiece in its own right. From the haunting Badlands to the poetic The New World, his work ranks in the echelons of arthouse cinema for being audacious, bold, beautiful and one-of-a-kind. With To The Wonder, however, Malick has made his most unexpected move yet by turning around a project in just two short years. This is, after all, the same director who took almost a decade to make his war movie The Thin Red Line. What’s even more unexpected though; it’s a let down of astronomic proportions.
To The Wonder tells the story of a romance falling apart, following an infatuated Parisian named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) who moves to America with her boyfriend Neil (Ben Affleck). But as time passes they become increasingly unhappy, eventually drawing Neil back to an old flame from his youth (Rachel McAdams) and Marina to find solace in religion, visiting a church at which the tortured Father Quinta (Javier Bardem) is a priest.
These are not so much characters, however, as they are brain dead zombies who lifelessly shuffle through pretty scenery in To The Wonder, occasionally touching things while whispering about their emotions in monotonous voiceover that sounds like an infatuated teenager’s attempt at poetry. They are background objects, secondary to the scenery, who carry no depth whatsoever. Affleck and Kurylenko are vacant of any real chemistry – why they love each other and what tests their bonds is a total mystery. Rachel McAdams, on the other hand, is unnecessary. She’s thrust in for about 20 minutes and drifts out without leaving any impression on the narrative whatsoever. Worst of all though is Javier Bardem’s Father Quinta who is fumblingly cut into the film to listen to people’s problems and feel sorry for himself in a subplot (can you call it that if it has no plot?) with no relation to story in even a thematic sense.
Consequently (and this really is the least of To The Wonder’s problems) all of the actors listed above are all awful in the film. Not that it’s their faults, mind you, when Malick is clearly too interested in capturing wheat fields and running water to give their characters more than one dimension or provide them any real direction. These are usually some of the most confident, commanding performers in cinema but here they look confused and perplexed about what they’re doing from scene to scene. It’s like they’re struggling to fathom who or what they’re actually portraying here, meaning that they erratically shift between euphoria and disillusionment within a single edit. One moment they’re dancing through sunset-drenched fields and the next they’re in an existential crisis. It’s like watching characters on The Sims.
The real problem with Terrence Malick’s decision to prioritise To The Wonder‘s scenery is that it depletes his film of any genuine substance. His films normally have a great balance of gloriously imagery and thought-provoking content that probes at powerful ideas and deep themes. Such is not the case in To The Wonder. Gone is The Thin Red Line’s tremendous study of human nature against the backdrop of war and The Tree Of Life’s burning questions about existence. Here, with barely a plot, theme or concept to drive these one-dimensional characters, this film has little more to say than “isn’t this shrubbery nice?”
The reason why this is the case is because Malick tells his story with very sparse dialogue. He favours his characters’ movement, their poetic voiceover, and the film’s aesthetic as a tool to allow us into their emotional breakdown rather than spoken exchanges about their feelings, motivations, desires, etc. It’s undoubtedly brave, essentially giving the film the feel of a cinematic ballet. But while this style beautifully complemented the relationship in The New World as the language barriers made it John Smith and Pocahontas’s only way to communicate, it’s unnatural, borderline goofy in To The Wonder‘s contemporary American setting. As they roll through the grass, dance through supermarkets, and float through tree branches it’s so tacky that it comes close to self-parody by Malick. Mostly, however, it just grows tiresome. You crave for one, just one, moment in their relation that’s even remotely grounded in reality. Can’t they slob in front of the TV and watch an episode of Homeland or something?
Even those who watch the film solely for Malick’s imagery are likely to exit with an overwhelming sense of disappointment. That’s not to say it’s ugly. On the contrary, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is as extraordinary as ever. But with its golden sunsets, low angles and fluid movement it’s startlingly familiar to The Tree Of Life – like a collection of shots left recycled from the film’s cutting room floor. And, in a way, that’s what the entire experience of To The Wonder is like; the B-side. All the pieces from his Palme d’Or winning masterpiece are there, but it feels half-assed, unfinished and rushed this time. Therefore, it’s barely a fraction of what Terrence Malick is capable of. A crushing, monumental disappointment.