To try and describe what actually happens in “To The Wonder” would be a very brief synopsis. An American man (Affleck) enters into a relationship with a French woman (Olga Kurylenko) and invites her and her daughter to move to the United States with him. Once there, he becomes distant and the couple begin to drift apart. She moves back to Paris and he briefly dates another woman (Rachel McAdams), but then she comes back and they continue to grow apart. A crumbling relationship isn’t exactly new cinematic territory, but seeing an auteur like Malick put his personal stamp on a tale like this sounds like an interesting proposition. Unfortunately as depicted here, it’s really not.
It was reported a while back that Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastian and Barry Pepper had all been cut from the film, but you shouldn’t feel bad for them. Feel bad for the actors who are actually in the film and have so very little to do. There are no real characters or relationships onscreen here, just scene after scene of the actors swirling around each other in a field, in the house, gesturing, touching each others faces, smiling. It doesn’t read as impressionistic, it just looks like they’re being filmed doing acting exercises. Affleck looks particularly lost as it appears that he’s literally been directed to “not speak” so for 90% of the film, he can only look and gesture at the actresses he shares the screen with. Kurylenko is ostensibly the main character (though she’s credited after Affleck), but doesn’t have much more to do except narrate her dissatisfaction. It would be hard to pinpoint a single scene where if removed would in any way change your understanding of the film.
Affleck said that this film made “Tree Of Life” look like “Transformers” and while his hyperbole was obviously intended to brace audiences to set their expectations accordingly, it’s not accurate. The film isn’t any more experimental in nature than his last film, it’s just less ambitious and far, far less interesting. Using the same cinematic techniques as his last film but taking away the grand themes, epic scope, period setting and breathtaking cinematography, what you are left with is not much. It will likely be ignored come awards time — though it should be a lock for Most Onscreen Frolicking — but I’ll be most curious to see if Malick’s admirers will start to wonder if their cinematic emperor is no longer wearing any clothes. - Cory Everett
“To the Wonder” feels like a film about absence, about longing, or “thirsting,” as Javier Bardem’s priest Quintana puts it at one point. Marina longs for her lover, longs for her daughter when she’s away, longs for a reaction from the distant Neil as their relationship becomes strained. Neil, meanwhile, is always looking for something else – a classic grass is greener type, torn between Marina and Jane, loving both, but unable to decide. And Quintana wanders the rougher parts of town, thirsting for a sign that God is listening to him in a world with so little evidence that his Lord exists. They’re all characters with a void in their existence (like Penn in “The Tree of Life”), and it hit us on a gut level.
Because for all of the glorious landscapes and images, it’s also a film of real, searing feeling, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. If one buys into the reports that Neil is something of a surrogate for Malick’s character, it’s rather fascinating the way that the director ultimately focuses on Marina, a generous and unexpected perspective, and one that, without psychoanalyzing the filmmaker too much, seems to be a way of airing his regrets about past actions. It’s also unexpectedly sexy in places. Malick’s always been one of the more sensual filmmakers out there, but there’s a bona-fide eroticism at work in places here.
While some would argue that the actors play second fiddle in a Malick picture, I’ve never found that to be the case, and certainly not here. Affleck, who is front-and-center far more than he suggested in the mostly dialogue-free film, has the toughest role: Neil’s a cold figure, not unloving, but not someone terribly easy with intimacy. The actor fades into the background a little early on, but he’s terrific later in the picture, with one near-heartbreaking moment of regret, and one shocking moment of sudden action lingering particularly in the mind. It’s a certainty that the film will prove divisive as its predecessor, but his latest is a beautiful, heartfelt and raw piece of work. --An excerpt from Oliver Lyttelton’s review from the Venice Film Festival in 2011.