Since reviewing "The Tree of Life" last year, I went and hunted down all of the remaining Terrence Malick films that I hadn't seen. So, I understand the complaints I've heard about his newest film, "To the Wonder," that claim Malick is just repeating himself and rehashing old themes. The style and imagery is similar to "The Tree of Life" and "The New World," full of gorgeous nature shots and hallucinatory transitions. Characters whisper lines of narration. The story is not incomprehensible, but it is often difficult to suss out the particulars of our central couple's relationship, because there is so little by way of exposition, and some events seem to contradict each other. However, "To the Wonder" is not a film where plot and character are particularly important. Rather, its chief concern is with thoughts and dreams and experiences, looking at the inner lives of two people who fall and love, and those connected to them.
Neil (Ben Affleck), an American, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a European, meet in France and fall in love. Neil brings Marina and her little daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to live in his hometown in Oklahoma. Most of the story is told in a stream of consciousness from Marina's point of view, though occasionally the POV will shift to Neil or Anna. We learn through snippets of murmured narration and the events depicted onscreen that the relationship is a difficult one. At first Marina is charmed by the new country, but then problems emerge, and there are difficulties adjusting. Tatiana wants to go home. They leave for a time, and Neil becomes involved with a local woman named Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marriage is discussed repeatedly, and we see a few images that suggests weddings take place, but it's not clear if Neil actually marries either woman. At one point Marina returns to Texas, and we see no more of Jane, so we can assume that relationship has ended. Finally, there are several interludes with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a peripheral character who meditates on the nature of his faith and relationships.
I think the best approach to the film is to treat is as a abstract work, a piece of visual poetry that is meant to be felt and absorbed for its marvelous aesthetics. The narrative is slight, but it does work on an emotional level, and Malick is exceptional in the way that he gets us invested in all the ups and downs of the troubled romance. While we don't know things like Marina's occupation or her relationship with Tatiana's father, we know exactly how she feels in every moment she appears onscreen. The performances depend heavily on physical action, to help convey the information that isn't being relayed in the narration and dialogue. Olga Kurylenko, like Jessica Chastain in "Tree of Life" and Q'orianka Kilcher in "The New World," is often shown exploring the scenery, movements exaggerated to emphasize how graceful and winsome she is. The implication is that in such moments, we are not only seeing a representation of Marina's physical self, but her animating soul and spirit. Kurylenko gets the bulk of the screentime here, far more than the first-billed Ben Affleck, and she's easy to watch, to sympathize and relate to.
One thing that does set "To the Wonder" apart from Malick's other films is that it takes place in the modern day, and though many of the scenes could take place in any era, there are the occasional shots of convenience stores and newer cars to establish that we are in the here and now. Much of the spoken narration is in French and Spanish, perhaps to give the film a more universal tone, or to emphasize the disconnectedness of some of the characters. However, Malick's approach to his subject matter is ultimately no different. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography continues to capture intimate human moments and stunning natural beauty. The stirring orchestral pieces by Hanan Townshend lend a timelessness to the images.
I found a viewing of "To the Wonder" a worthwhile experience, but it didn't have the same impact of "Tree of Life" with its massive scope and nostalgic yearning, or "The New World" with its sense of discovery and immersion in an alien landscape. "To the Wonder" feels smaller scale and very familiar, giving us a fresh perspective perhaps, but not really elevating that vision. The film is satisfying, but it's nowhere near the level of Malick's previous work. Also, though Father Quintana is one of the most blatant religious figures in any Malick film, the spiritual themes fall completely flat.
I would not recommend "To the Wonder" to viewers who have no experience with Terrence Malick or non-traditional narratives, because this is a tough one. However, for existing Malick fans, it's a good feature even though it's not among his best, and worth giving a look.