There’s no filmmaker quite like Terrence Malick. He’s the Cormac McCarthy of the movie world: existing on its periphery, occasionally turning out a movie, then bowing out again, while never really being a part of the industry world. And maybe that being out of touch with the industry has created a vacuum for his unique visions to be developed in.
“To the Wonder” is primarily a romance between two people (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) and is also a romance with life. The ups and downs, the beauty and the pain of love and life, and a special relationship with nature are all conflated in Malick’s unique ability to represent both in a movie that is very filmic in the sense that it is constantly visual and where characters say almost nothing.
It’s hard to describe how this movie works. Like Malick’s last movie, “The Tree of Life,” this one is virtually all montage. There is almost no dialogue except for poems comprised of the inner thoughts of Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem who has a supporting role as a local priest.
The movie opens in France with the couple falling in love and the interests of the camera are Parisian art and the architecture of Mont Saint-Michele during a visit. Then Affleck moves Kurylenko and her 10-year-old daughter to the USA, the place I assume his character is from. This part of this movie was filmed in Oklahoma so that’s probably where it takes place. I’m not certain of these things because the movie never says.
A lot of viewers are going to have trouble with this approach. “The Tree of Life” gained some mainstream recognition thanks to co-stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn and created a bit of a controversy between patrons and theatres. The movie had lots of walkouts and demands for refunds because the movie didn’t conform to their expectations. This forced some theatres to put up signs warning ticket buyers that the movie has artistic aspirations.
In a by the numbers Hollywood version of “To the Wonder,” it would be a star vehicle for Ben Affleck but in this movie, like Pitt and Penn in “The Tree of Life,” he is a shadow of his star persona, lacking the pretension of a star appearing in a Hollywood movie centred around him. And it is a little strange seeing that absent. He seems like an average guy and he doesn’t have more than six lines of dialogue in the whole movie.
The relationship has its share of turmoil and eventually the women go back to Paris. For a little while, after a chance encounter, Affleck takes up with a woman (Rachel McAdams) he knew when he was younger. McAdams has a very expressive face and is put to good use here. Like Kurylenko, McAdams thoughts narrate this part of the movie. We’re not sure what Affleck thinks. He’s the central character and yet his thoughts last for about one or two lines only.
There is also a subplot about Bardem having a crisis of faith. We see him in mass, on missions to the poor part of town and to a prison. He seems earnest but feels emptiness in his life where God is supposed to be. The Affleck – Kurylenko romance, the Affleck-McAdams romance, and the Bardem subplot feel like three different movies pasted together. Especially the Bardem subplot. This aspect of the movie lacks all congruency with the rest. The movie is 112 minutes so the subplot, which doesn’t account for a lot of the runtime, could have been cut entirely and the movie still would have rounded out at feature length.
“To the Wonder” is weaker than other Malick movies but is nonetheless a finely crafted, visual piece of art in a way that is totally unique to the movies of any other filmmaker. A restructuring of the screenplay would have brought it up to greatness.
*** (out of 4)
-The Loneliest Planet
-All the Real Girls
-Never Let Me Go
David Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.