To the Wonder, 2012.
Directed by Terrence Malick.
Starring Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Charles Baker, Romina Mondello, Cassidee Vandalia and Darryl Cox.
After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile (Javier Bardem), who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Terrence Malick is placed on a pedestal with very few other directors. His films are like no others I have seen or will ever see and they speak to me in a way no other director can. I claimed his previous film, The Tree of Life, to be the best film of the decade with 9 years still remaining when it was released in 2011. Nothing has come close to it since. It greatly saddens me to write a review where I am unable to bestow the same praise of Malick’s previous five masterpieces on his latest release To the Wonder.
First and foremost, To the Wonder is a greater success than it is a disappointment. The film is never anything other than a triumph of artistic beauty to look at and the ‘trademark Malick’ shots are ever-present although his camera feels more active and agitated than before and the frequency of edits seem greater than any of this previous films.
The problem with To the Wonder is that, for the first time, we don’t care about the characters enough to allow Malick’s narrative style to flow freely as it did before. Malick is pushing the boundaries of cinematic narrative to their very limits with this film but without the connection he usually brings so effortlessly to the audience’s heart. We find out precious little about the two lovers, Maria (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) and why they are going through their troubles. Moreover, the film is told almost entirely from Maria’s viewpoint, leaving Affleck with very little to do and hinders his performance. It seems like Affleck never knows if his scenes will even make it to the final cut whereas Kurylenko is given free rein to act her heart out.
To the Wonder is most comparable with Malick’s 2005 masterpiece The New World. The issue here is that when we see Pocahontas running and dancing through the fields and grass we understand her motivation for doing so; she is from another culture, another world, and has met this strange new man from a far away land and is expressing herself in a way Captain Smith has never seen before. In To the Wonder, there appears to be no reason why Maria acts similarly, and the magic Malick creates is for the first time questioned.
One of the major flaws in this film is the decision to have the voiceover of the central character, Marina and supporting character Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in French and Spanish and subtitled on the screen in English. The intrusion of the subtitles and forcing the audience to look away from the images breaks the connection Malick’s use of voiceover has in his films. Take any of his previous five films as examples; the voiceover ghosts through the films and has an omnipotent feeling. Seeing the words on the screen ruins the impact they have in the context of Malick’s narrative style and loses the naturalism the words evoke, and is even more frustrating when we hear the characters speak in English to other people.
Around the hour mark, the film feels exhausted and lost in its own beauty, rather than telling a story in a unique way. It’s Malick’s first film set in the present day (save for the Sean Penn scenes in The Tree of Life) and the story doesn’t feel like it has anything to say, which is a shame because his other works say so much. This film also contains the only footage in his films I wish I could un-see. The film opens with dreadful digital video camera footage and I went into something of a panic sat there in my seat… I’ve just hated something Terrence Malick has shot. Thankfully the footage is never repeated but it’s a terrible few scenes. Maybe it’s his way of saying man-made metropolis is ugly, but it’s an ugly way of starting a beautiful film, regardless of symbolism.
To the Wonder feels like it is in need of an extended cut, adding more to the story and characters than what has been released because I am positive there is more to this film than this theatrical cut; in fact, we already know Malick has completely cut out scenes with stars Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper. The New World got its much needed extended edition on Blu-ray, and there has been talk of a six hour release of The Tree of Life; To the Wonder needs this treatment if it is to ever stand up to the masterpieces which we have been privileged to watch up until now.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★