There’s a sense of spirituality and piety that inhabits the films of director Terrence Malick. The legendary filmmaker is known for his lengthy productions; Malick has made only six pictures in a forty-year career as well as spending much of his time in the editing room cutting down rolls of film (the original version of The Tree of Life stretched over six hours). Malick worships nature in his movies and in his work depicts themes instead of creating linear narratives. For some audiences, watching a Malick film is disorienting, confusing, and dull. For me, seeing a Malick picture is an eye opening experience, an emotional roller coaster that I never want to get off of.
Malick’s previous movie, The Tree of Life, was my clear favorite of 2011. It was a joyous movie that is just simply stunning and breathtaking. To The Wonder, the director’s newest picture, does not achieve the perfection of The Tree Of Life, but it’s as celebratory film as Malick has ever made. While To The Wonder isn’t as large as The Tree of Life was, which acted as an extended metaphor comparing the creation of the Universe to the life of a family, it’s just as complex and ambitious.
The storyline of To The Wonder is told in classic Malick fashion. The film is about a couple played by Ben Affleck (as Neil) and Olga Kurylenko (as Marina), who meet in Paris and fall instantly in love. Neil, an American, encourages Marina and her daughter to the infinite plains of Oklahoma. Marina agrees, but soon the relationship between the two starts to sour. Neil soon meets an old fling of his played by Rachel McAdams and Marina attempts to assemble her new life in America.
Critics of To The Wonder have complained that the film is empty centered on nothing, a fair sentiment but one that I disagree with. The central theme of To The Wonder is love and the limits of it. Neil and Marina’s love is frequently tested throughout the film as they try to keep what they have. A priest played by Javier Bardem also judges love. He visits the poor, the ill, the jailed, and examines what justice has been brought upon them. His faith in Christ is tested throughout the film as he questions his own individual spirituality.
To The Wonder gets involved in its complexities more so than The Tree of Life. The film unwinds and by each passing minute becomes more ambiguous. The film ends on a note that seems somewhat anticlimactic, but I felt satisfied with the film. What matters in To The Wonder, or any Terrence Malick film in fact, isn’t the storyline but the themes and imagery. Malick cranks up his surrealism to a whole new level, engaging the audience like nothing before. Unlike any of Malick’s other movies, To The Wonder takes place in contemporary times, but it’s still rooted in the past and perhaps even on a personal note for the director. Some of the motivations of the characters are not revealed, but I believe that Malick is challenging viewers to think for themselves about their ambitions. Subsequent viewings will surely reveal more of Malick’s intentions, but I found myself admiring in his goals. Perhaps To The Wonder becomes overbearing at times, and a few scenes are repetitive and almost parody-like (how many shots of people dancing and grass flowing and narrations can Malick take?), but despite its flaws, I found myself taken away by the picture. Malick can convey emotion in his movies as well as Francis Ford Coppola could, and he engages the audience in scenes of happiness and sadness.
To The Wonder is (please forgive me for saying this) a wondrous film, a thoroughly crafted, stunning piece of artwork. Perhaps it has set its ambitions too high and is on the brink of pretentiousness but with its beauty and majesty I found myself entranced in Malick’s world.
Editor’s Note: Roger Ebert’s final review (the last one he wrote, he published other ones posthumously) is on To The Wonder and really defines the film. If you have not read it yet (click this link to), I implore you to read his thoughts.