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To the Wonder

2012 | 113 min | R | 2.39:1

To the Wonder


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Theatrical release date

 12 April, 2013
 22 February, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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To the Wonder


Screenshots from To the Wonder Blu-ray

To the Wonder Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, April 13, 2013

Terrence Malick makes a particular type of movie. There’s nothing wrong with an artist in possession of a singular style, with many filmmakers enjoying mighty careers basically making the same feature over and over, with subtle shifts in approach. “To the Wonder” is Malick’s latest work (his sixth project since 1973), and it resembles his previous accomplishments in numerous ways. What’s lacking here is character, watching the helmer construct his traditional ode to environmental instability and human weakness, yet there’s not a single interesting figure onscreen capable of holding attention. A sudsy wash of sensations, “To the Wonder” is gorgeous and ambitious, but cold to the touch, nearly carrying on as a parody of a Malick endeavor instead of solidifying its poetic ways as a step forward in the slo-mo evolution of the reclusive creator.

Sparking a feverish romance in Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Mariana (Olga Kurylenko) are madly in love, finding their courtship rich with passion and promise. Bringing Mariana and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) home to Texas, Neil hopes to balance family responsibilities with his work as an environmental scientist, studying the ravages of oil production and mass construction. While the pair carries on as normal for some time, distance begins to creep into the relationship, confusing Mariana, who’s lost in a strange land without support. Breaking up, the couple drifts in separate directions, with Neil entering the orbit of Jane (Rachel McAdams in a glorified cameo), a former flame and a young woman with severe trust issues after her life is ruined by financial and relationship catastrophes. Also in town is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest undergoing a crisis of faith, questioning God’s presence in his life as he works to take care of the community’s needy souls.

“To the Wonder” continues a quest of spiritual questioning for Malick that began in “The Tree of Life,” his 2011 brain-bleeder that looked to the nuances of the family unit as the foundation of self. The new film takes a more literal leap into heavenly woes, creating a semi-parallel journey for Neil and Father Quintana, who both turn to God for comfort as they suffer through the pains of existence, watching the scientist attempt to reconcile Mariana’s combustible passions with his depressing day job, while the priest begs for a sign of skyward involvement, growing impatient with the demands of faith. Malick is attentive to the ritual of churchgoing and the heart-squeeze of self-questioning, mining a yearn for balance out of all the characters, handed a warm rinse of orchestral support from composer Hanan Townshend, who introduces a constant, supportive Malickian symphonic lift to the proceedings.

Love also resides in the picture, taking on a bipolar quality as we witness the ups and downs of Neil and Mariana’s relationship, observing the pair burn with intensity as they commit their lives to each other, only to feel the dizzying effect wear off as time passes and reality sets in. “To the Wonder” is both mournful and euphoric when it comes to matters between men and women, supplying a sensuous feel of doe-eyed connection and sexuality to articulate the new car smell of the pairing. And when circumstances sour, the coldness paralyzes the twosome in a profound manner, articulated with a nearly silent film-style presentation of facial acting. Malick isn’t interested in traditional dialogue exchanges here, using poetic narration from Mariana to set the analytical mood, leaving the performers to express pain through body language (while appearing in the entire feature, Affleck only has about six lines of dialogue), while glorious naturalistic cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki carries most of the emotional workload, employing roving handheld camerawork and glowing magic-hour serenity to communicate the fragility of the moment.

Soaking up the landscape and the sheer ache of the loosely defined story, Malick forgoes actual characters for “To the Wonder,” keeping the personalities indistinct, even as they suffer common problems. The distance is frustrating at first, eventually growing bizarre as the movie requests sympathy for these question marks and their bad decisions. “To the Wonder” is a beautiful picture with a distinct Malick fingerprint, chewing on all his filmmaking habits and abstract interests, yet it never comes alive as a human story, spending more time watching Kurylenko jump on beds and spin herself dizzy than settling into the heartache we’re supposed to experience. While artful and well-intentioned, the feature remains trapped in a glass box, scolding those who dare to reach out and try to rub their hands over the enticing emotional textures Malick provides.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Charles Baker, Marshall Bell
Director: Terrence Malick

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