To the Wonder does the unimaginable in making the viewer long for the linearity and coherency of The Tree of Life. A feat only Terrence Malick could conceive, his latest esoteric cinematic exploration is a beautifully imagined and wondrously photographed self-important and didactic slog of a film.
Love being the overarching theme that ties To The Wonder together, Marina (Ogla Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) visit Mont Saint-Michel in France (often called the Wonder), subsequently falling for one another. After time spent in the gorgeous depths of France, the two lovers (along with Marina’s child) come back to suburban life in Oklahoma.
The honeymoon phase of their relationship quickly dissipates as problems arise – mainly Neil’s ambivalence towards marriage causes tension. Marina befriends a local priest and fellow exile (played by Javier Bardem), where some of the most intimate moments derive. And organically added into the melodramatic mix is Neil’s childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), in which the two rekindle a past romance.
Every moment captured in To the Wonder is bound to woo audiences with its radiating beauty and feel for discovery. Multiple shots taken in the dusty plains of Oklahoma and the exquisite architecture of France should be printed and framed. Malick has essentially constructed yet another endeavor that amounts to a revolving screensaver full of resplendent images with a gap in substance and story.
As Malick’s career continues it would seem he’s beginning to take the route of French new wave revolutionary Jean Luc Godard, favouring the sort of discursive cinematic essay that is about everything and nothing at the same time, the recluse auteur disastrously misses the mark here. Aimless in its scripting, backed with a narration from the entire cast filled with hyperbole and clichés, Malick and co. make little effort to define these characters in a way we could ever connect to them.
For most filmmakers we’re intrigued by the evolution or sometimes the regression of a career. To the Wonder doesn’t progress Malick’s aesthetic – it merely revels in its self-satisfactory construction. The Illinois born director is known for his lengthy breaks between projects. However, by the conclusion of 2013 we will have received five Malick films in three years – one film more than total he’s made over the past 32. Perhaps he’s churning out as many movies as he can before his retirement, or maybe he’s had these scripts waiting in line for quite some time and only recently received some powerful inspiration.
Whatever the reason may be, To the Wonder is vacant of just that: inspiration. Most of the film comes off as rushed and unfinished. While tonally on the target in focusing on the many different forms of love, next to every other element of this prolonged, meandering, and dull exercise in boredom is muddled. Malick has the unnatural talent to evolve a simplistic and adolescent game of hide and go seek into a profound and existential search into the character’s hearts and minds (yes, there is a scene of that sort in here).
That said, I believe it’s time for the auteur to dial back on the metaphysical allegories and the onslaught of awe-inspiring imagery, and concern himself with perhaps creating a thought-out out narrative worthy of attention.