Since his nearly two-decade-long hiatus in between the release of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, filmmaker Terrence Malick has become, by his standards, almost prolific. The problem is, he seems to be sinking into a similar pattern as of late, making beautiful, ethereal, purely cinematic features that rely a bit too much on what have now become his signature filmic techniques. From The Thin Red Line on, up to and including his most recent feature, To The Wonder, Malick’s go-to device has been to set dreamy, lushly shot sequences to esoterically poetic voiceover narration. For his previous three pictures, including The New World and The Tree of Life, this worked well, thanks to the epic, celestial nature of the films’ subject matter. In To The Wonder, however, Malick attempts to imbue what is essentially a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama with a similar grandiosity. This is not a bad idea, as the inner, personal world can be just as expansive as war, nature, discovery and spirituality, but, frankly, To The Wonder becomes bogged and down and more than a little bit boring over the course of its two hours.
The film begins in Europe, where an American environmental inspector, Neil (Ben Affleck), meets a beautiful Ukrainian woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris. The two travel to the island of Mont St. Michel, just off the coast of Normandy, where an abbey sits impressively off the coast. They frolic and gaze at one another, but soon head back to Neil’s home in rural Oklahoma with Marina’s daughter in tow. After what seems like an impossibly languid love affair, reality sets in as things begin to settle back to earth, fights and disenchantment take hold, and Marina decides to return home. Neil takes up with a local girl, Jane (Rachel McAdams), but things don’t work out there either. Eventually, Marina returns to Oklahoma, but emotional problems of this sort aren’t that easily solved. Throughout these melodramatic crises, Javier Bardem’s priest, Father Quintana, faces his own spiritual crossroads.
As you might be able to tell, there isn’t much of a story here, but ideally it shouldn’t matter. To The Wonder isn’t as much about exposition as it is about emotion. Rabid Malick fans might praise the lyrical, slow-paced nature in which the story unfolds, but they also might ultimately be talking themselves into admiration based more on Malick’s reputation than the actual work in front of them. The film is filthy with voiceover, and it changes in each section—it begins with Olga’s subtitled French, then switches to English with Neil, and then Jane. The actors barely speak to each other, at least not on the soundtrack. Their acting consists almost entirely of meaningful looks and playful banter, but instead of actually hearing what they say to each other, we are treated to swelling, sublime classical music, and, yes, lots and lots of voiceover.
To The Wonder is at times painfully beautiful, and Malick is a master at finding the wonder in even the most mundane natural phenomenon. He is capable of making a wind-swept prairie in the Midwest look just as remarkable as an ancient Norman castle. As far as the meshing of sound and vision, the film is a marvel, perhaps one that should really be considered more as an experimental, Maya Deren-esque art piece than as a narrative feature. But, aspirations aside, the true gauge of a film should be if one actually enjoys the experience of watching it, not just aesthetically but viscerally. For all its lofty ambitions and cinematic exultation, To The Wonder fails to deliver this latter form of satisfaction.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams
Release Date: Apr. 12, 2013