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.
But hopes of something a little more down to earth for the new film (and this writer has to confess he wasn't entirely enamored by "Tree of Life") were seemingly quashed when Ben Affleck, the star of the film, teased before its premiere that it “makes ‘Tree of Life’ look like Transformers." But we have to say that Affleck was exaggerating a little. “To the Wonder” is unlikely to win over many who’ve sworn off Malick in the past, but it’s certainly one that leans towards traditional narrative a little more than “The Tree of Life.” And to our eyes at least it feels like a more coherent, deeply felt and satisfying film than its predecessor.
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.
As you might imagine given its close proximity to “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” acts as a close cousin to last year’s film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s (typically glorious-looking) cinematography is along much the same lines, if anything taken to more of an extreme, with the fluid Steadicam ever-wandering, ever-searching, and rarely straying more than a few feet from the actors. Despite switching out composers (Hanan Townsend for Alexandre Desplat), the music is along much the similar classical music lines. (However, unless they’re buried in the background somewhere, there was no sign of those reported St. Vincent and Thee Oh Sees tracks either).
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.
As for early buzz that the film was even less audience-friendly than the last, we’re not so sure. Though Malick plays a little with time, it’s much less of a stream of consciousness: the director might wander off the narrative backbone of the relationship between Neil and Marina a little, but never strays too far away, and the film feels less self-consciously poetic and meandering. This isn’t to say that it’s not indulgent – Malick certainly isn’t in a hurry, and there’s plenty of shots of figures wandering through cornfields, or two people circling around each other. But it also feels like it’s working towards a more coherent theme, and the film is somehow more satisfying as a result.
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.
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.
Former Bond girl Kurylenko, meanwhile, is a revelation, and it’s arguably Marina’s film more than anyone else’s, with "To The Wonder" starting and ending on her. The actress is luminous in the part, though, a somewhat silly, often child-like woman unable to get her lover to meet her halfway (she reminded us of Nora from Ibsen's "A Doll's House", curiously), and her heartbreaking turn should open a lot of doors for her. McAdams has the least to do of the principals, but is wonderfully haunted and sad in her brief appearances, while Bardem, as you’d probably expect, is the stand-out, able to depict the priest’s tumultuous soul simply with the way he walks. There’s also a firecracker cameo by Italian actress Romina Mondello late in the film as a friend of Marina’s.
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.