For a man not known for being prolific, an eighteen-month gap between Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (the filmmaker’s first film in five years) and his latest “To the Wonder” (which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last summer) isn’t just unprecedented, it’s positively mind-boggling, especially given that the director is now in the midst of a pair of films, “Knight of Cups” and a still untitled effort set against the music scene.
The plot, such as it is, is more or less the one widely reported, and seemingly based, if some are to be believed, on Malick’s own experiences of marriage and divorce. Neil (Affleck), an environmental inspector, and single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris, and while he’s a little resistant to commitment, asks her and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to move to Oklahoma with him. They live happily together for a while, but things start to crumble a little when her visa expires and she’s forced to return home for a time. Neil then reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend now divorced and managing a ranch on her own. Somewhere in the mix is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Marina’s priest and confidante, who’s suffering from something of a crisis of faith.
And some of the same visual themes are in play too, particularly the interplay of nature and grace, although the intrusion of pre-fab suburbia, along with some positively apocalyptic construction sites that Affleck passes through, gives a little more edge to the landscapes. Indeed, being Malick’s first-ever film set entirely in the present day gives it a pulse and vitality that we’ve found lacking in the last few pictures.
For this writer at least, “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.
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.
There’s very, very little dialogue in the film, with much of what is said sometimes buried in the mix or muted altogether. Even so, we might have been tempted to drop much of the narration, which sometimes feels a bit student-poetry, especially as the visuals are normally managing to achieve the same thing. And Malick, and his five (?!) editors, lose the thread a little as the film comes to close, although there’s a terrific economy of storytelling in the cutting elsewhere. 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. [A-]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the Venice Film Festival.