First let me get this out of the way: if you didn’t like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, steer clear of To the Wonder. The untethered camera lingers like mad, and To the Wonder is rife with various other Malickisms. There’s a loose, flowy quality to this film’s explorations of love, God, and nature that will probably be off-putting to you, and that’s understandable since this kind of material and approach is an acquired taste.
If you’re in the above camp, save yourself the frustration and just don’t see To the Wonder. If you’re willing to give Malick another shot though, go rent Badlands.
Okay, so that leaves the people who, like me, really enjoyed The Tree of Life.
Well, you may want to go rewatch The Tree of Life instead.
To the Wonder
Director: Terrence Malick
Release Date: April 12, 2013
I write the above acknowledging that To the Wonder is a visually gorgeous film. Moments of sublime beauty pervade the movie as it explores its interconnected notions of love and God. The film mostly centers on Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the way their love grows, changes, sours, and attempts to endure. She’s so mad about him that she and her daughter move to America with him. There’s also Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest going through a crisis of faith, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman whose presence puts love in jeopardy. The narrative swirls around them and disperses, swirls around and disperses, and it’s as if Malick’s trying to create a series of symphonic movements that communicate more through sound and vision than through dialogue.
Marina and Quintana’s occasional voiceovers set the intellectual and emotional concerns of To the Wonder on the table: Marina asks questions about the nature of love, Quintana asks questions about the nature of God. These questions are interchangeable. Both love and God are intangible powers that people believe in but rarely understand. Where does love come from? Why is love cruel? Where did our love go? (And now switch “love” for “God.”) The idea of exploring love and God in its various forms — and exploring the connective tissue between storge, phileo, eros, and agape in the process — had me hooked early on. This is the stuff of real life and pop music expanded into the realm of the philosophical and metaphysical.
What also enthralled me initially were the visuals and sound of To the Wonder. There’s a kind of splendor to the vast shots of tall grass commanded to whip and bow by wind, or a benevolent herd of bison come to graze while two would-be lovers look on, touched and in awe. (Maybe nature itself is the source of God and love, and maybe these moments are uncanny expressions of it. Neil’s job involves surveying the effects of pollution in the soil and in people, which might hint at a deeper notion of love, God, and nature as frailer things than we think.) Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera drifts like some sort of bird or angel, and there are times that this floating spectator conveys the depth of these ideas. As Neil and Jane grow closer, the score is a dissonant churn like sudden blusters on a plain, until suddenly the melody of their whirlwind romance emerges. This is the potential of the film’s material when fully realized.
But sometimes when the technical machinery of a work is so perfectly refined, the actual flaws in design are easier to spot. The main flaw in this film: the characters who are moved by love and God are barely realized as characters. While Malick is going for something expressionistic and writes Neil and Marina and the others intentionally flat, I can’t help but feel that the flatness undermines the humanity of the whole film. By contrast, I think The Tree of Life is brimming with humanity, even if it draws on archetypes of childhood and parents in its exploration of grace and nature.
In To the Wonder we don’t really have those rich archetypes. Neil is the stoic man, Jane is the other woman, Quintana is the troubled priest, Marina is naive but then just gets plain crazy. (I suppose if people who talk to God are considered crazy, maybe the same’s true with people who talk to love.) They are pieces on a board who don’t particularly go anywhere. They don’t even connect in the most meaningful of ways. Quintana’s story is so to-the-side that he seems like he’s from a different film set in the same universe of To the Wonder. What first seemed like human relationships became mere pairings, gears of storytelling machinery coming into contact with each other.
Midway through To the Wonder, I began to wonder why Marina and Jane are so in love with Neil. He’s a stern and quiet type, and he’s ruggedly handsome, but he’s not really there for them emotionally. He’s a presence but a non-presence as well. He has the personality of a stone in the field, and he’s also abusive and aloof. Yet both Jane and Marina are driven mad by their love for him. Love can drive people mad, and people love irrationally in real life, but I think in a film that has its eyes and ears trained on the divine, these simple “just because” answers are unsatisfying. The mystery of the film went from “What is the nature of love and God?” to “Why are these people acting this way?”
Even the intellectual/philosophical machinery of To the Wonder that had me hooked begins to falter because of the deficiencies in these character. Marina and Father Quintana ask the same questions again and again through the film without any sense of understanding, progression, or new subtleties of observation. What I sensed instead was a cycle of ideas that are posed and then abandoned, posed and then abandoned, as if by the end of To the Wonder I was further away from a sense of the divine than I was at the beginning. It’s not that I expected answers to any of these questions about love and God, but I was hoping that these questions would be asked in more interesting ways and with greater variation.
Maybe what’s oddest about To the Wonder is that it’s made me realize something about my own taste. Even though I like alienating and strange things, they only stick when there’s something human there. I don’t think it’s possible to explore such vital human concerns about this world (and the possible next) with non-humans like these. Without understanding the depth of their internal lives (or having those depths hinted at), these larger concerns break down around them. The imagery and sound that moved me initially become fine technical achievements by a good craftsman rather than indescribable sources of aesthetic wonderment, which is the closest I come these days to a spiritual experience. In other words, I need something human to get at something like the presence of God.
In an interview I saw online a week ago, Kurylenko said that she’d filmed more scenes with Bardem’s character for To the Wonder, but they were cut from the finished film. Similarly, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Michael Sheen, and Barry Pepper shot scenes for the film but were nixed. It’s not out of character for Malick, who shoots a lot, cuts a lot, and leaves many actors off screen, and some of the roles mentioned above were small, but I’m curious what was left out of the film. Maybe these moments revealed other facets to Neil and Marina and Quintana and Jane that just didn’t come through for me, which would be a shame since as it is now, the characters of To the Wonder are, like the film, aesthetic objects.