To the Wonder (2012)
★ / ★★★★
As a director I admire for taking his time to really helm a picture and consistently push the boundaries of what the cinematic medium can bring to us, it is most disappointing that Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” does not offer anything refreshing or new. It is closest to “The Tree of Life” in style but, as a whole, it comes off excruciatingly dull, almost as if the writer-director’s name is slapped onto the end credits but is actually made by an ardent but ultimately talentless impostor.
The figures on screen talk in a whispery, raspy tone to the point where it is so unnatural, clearly they are trying too hard to sound thought-provoking. Couple their bits of dialogue with would-be contemplative classical music and occasional utilization of narration to add a glimmer of context, the work ends up artificial, too controlled for what should be an enveloping experience of how it is like to be so wrapped up in being romantically involved with another. I did not feel for any of the models on screen.
Though negligible, the basic premise is this: Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris and move to Oklahoma. When Marina’s visa expires, she is forced to leave the country. While Marina is overseas, Neil reconnects with a woman in his past, Jane (Rachel McAdams), whose farm is on the verge of bankruptcy. To its credit, while the set-up sounds like a sort of a love triangle, it is not.
It is not the actors’ fault that the material is so dry. The screenplay is so self-indulgent, it leaves very little wiggle room for the performers to interpret their characters in meaningful ways. I wondered why they were cast in the first place. Get an unknown face to play Affleck’s role and it would not have made a significant difference.
Many images are recycled from past Malick pictures. There is a recurring theme involving water, which symbolizes life and sustenance (in this case, of a relationship), in which similar figures, including angling and duration, can be seen in “The Tree of Life” and “The New World”–characters step in the water and their sense of being is renewed. Another involves people running or walking through wheat fields and grass, summoning “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” These are symbols of freedom, an out of body experience, and being one with nature–living things that grow directly because of the sun.
In addition, the images are repetitive. How many times must we endure looking at a man and a woman kissing, caressing, and holding hands? They are shot so slowly that it borders on fetishistic. For the lack of a better term, I found the whole thing to be sickening. Since the subject of marriage is brought up, especially from the standpoint of religion, I felt as though the writer-director has created a work with an underlying message: that in the eyes of God marriage is strictly between a man and a woman.
“To the Wonder” is suffocatingly, maddeningly esoteric. It will test anyone’s patience. There are beautiful people on screen but close to nothing is communicated. Actually, what I got from this film is less than nothing. It stole two hours of my life. And that is something I would never have imagined saying about a Malick film.