To the Wonder

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem

Two years ago, I went to bat for Terrence Malick's Tree of Life.  It was an artsy movie without a lot of dialogue.  At the same time, however, it was a beautiful, impactful statement about life, the universe, and parenthood.  In Malick's latest movie To the Wonder, he's moved onto smaller themes, namely love and faith.  Once again, he creates a film with sparse dialogue that tries to capture both the beauty and tragedy of love and how one eventually loses faith in his or her partner.  Malick's rather unique style of filmmaking doesn't make this a very relatable movie.  As you can tell, I'm not going to be the one to go to bat for this one.  To the Wonder is visually beautiful, but it's boring as hell.

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris and instantly fall for one another.  Sparks fly and French girl Marina twirls around all day long at the prospect of her American lover.  She twirls a whole lot more when Neil offers to take Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to America to live with him.  He takes the two women in his life to live in some rural town in the middle of nowhere.  It's a nice idea in theory, but in practice it doesn't work.  Neil doesn't marry Marina, her visa expires, and their relationship falls apart entirely.  With Marina gone, Neil finds himself pursuing one of his former classmates, a beautiful woman named Jane (Rachel McAdams).  Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the town's local priest, struggles with his relationship with Christ.

In To the Wonder, Terrence Malick tries to explore two types of failing relationships — one in which a man and a woman lose faith in one another and another in which a man of the cloth loses faith in Christ.  Love is a tragic beauty, and Malick intends to illustrate the perpetual struggle of love.  The problem is that, like most films by Malick, there is sparse dialogue in the movie.  Ben Affleck spoke maybe five audible words in two hours.  Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem, who narrate the film as well, whispered their occasional lines.  Meanwhile, Malick literally inundates us with visual imagery to make his point.  With frequent images of still water, changing tides, and water crashing into a dam, it suffices to say that Malick drives his point home symbolically about the storm that's brewing in both relationships.

This is an approach with which I totally disagree.  One of the most important moments in any relationship is when lovers utter three little words: "I love you". Whether declaring love, proposing marriage, or asking for a divorce, communication is essential in any relationship.  When it comes to the Catholic faith, a believer's relationship with God is a product of what one says as much as what that person does.  One has to profess to love the Lord.  One must pray to the Lord regularly.  One must confess any sins to a priest to be absolved of these transgressions.  Clearly, talking to God is an inherent part of spirituality for followers of the Catholic faith.  While I do recognize that the flip side of this argument is that little communication is needed for the disintegration of any relationship, Malick covers both the rosy and thorny sides of love and faith.  Body language, grand orchestral arrangements, and imagery of water are simply not enough to convey the depth and complexity of love no matter how beautiful it all is.

My other gripe with To the Wonder is the way in which Terrence Malick portrays women in the movie.  He puts women in a very submissive position throughout the film.  He wants to show that "love is a command", something to which women must adhere.  Given that Olga Kurylenko’s character is the secular equivalent to Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana and that priests are always subservient to Christ, this is pretty clear.  Take a good look at Kurylenko's character.  Marina is anything but a self-sufficient woman.  She goes to the US on a whim with her American boy.  He takes care of her there.  They break up.  She goes back to Paris.  She can't take life on her own.  She can't take care of her daughter Tatiana (whom she sends to the girl's father) or herself for that matter, so she goes eventually running back to Neil to take care of her.  She's not exactly an independent woman, and admits this in declaring that she's the weaker one in this relationship with Neil.  However, she is the dominant female figure of the film and unfortunately represents Malick's vision of women in a relationship. 

In all honesty, To the Wonder is a bloated movie that could have been shot as a 20-minute short film.  Take out all the unnecessary visuals and an hour of nonverbal communication, and you'll get a more effective exposé on the struggle of love.  I wouldn't mind some additional dialogue either.  Really, there's no need for all this stylistic fluff.  There is a need, however, for a few lemon drop martinis.  To the Wonder gets a 0.09% rating.