To The Wonder – Beautiful, Searching, Boring

By Ezra Stead

To the Wonder, USA, 2012

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

To the Wonder lacks any emotional connection, which would seem to be beneficial to a film about the loss of both love and faith. Terrence Malick is one of the most distinctive and impressive filmmakers alive, and at his best, he makes beautiful, poetic films that evoke universal feelings that touch the shared humanity in us all. At his worst, however, he makes beautiful, poetic films that reach for the profound and universally significant, but manage only to alienate and bore the viewer. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of his previous five films are which, but for me, his latest, To the Wonder, is decidedly one of the latter. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I remember thinking it looked like somber self-parody, and on the second viewing of said trailer, I actually counted the number of wheat fields and searching, wistful looks, coming up with at least eight of each. I’ll say this for that trailer: though it didn’t particularly make me want to see the film it advertised, it was certainly an accurate representation.

To the Wonder concerns a pair of lovers, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), whose relationship is examined in a non-chronological fashion, showing scenes of its heady beginning interspersed with its sad, chaotic demise. This nonlinear storytelling does nothing to alleviate the lack of engagement already engendered by their story. The good times are represented by picturesque runs through the aforementioned wheat fields and superficially gorgeous, gauzy tumbles through immaculate white sheets, all accompanied by oppressive classical music. The end of the relationship is shown in equally disjointed moments of frustration and emotional violence, such as one of the film’s truly memorable and affecting scenes, in which Neil breaks the rearview mirror of his vehicle with a punch, then drives away, leaving Marina stranded on the side of the road.

Javier Bardem also appears as a priest, Father Quintana, who is tangentially related to the main story in that he is seen sharing the screen with Affleck a few times, though the priest’s crisis of faith is far more interesting in its execution than Malick’s handling of the decay of a romantic relationship. Rachel McAdams is also briefly seen as Jane, an old flame of Neil’s who appears to be either part of the friction between Neil and Marina, a sanctuary to which Neil goes to escape these troubles, or both. The film is far too impressionistic to be sure of exactly what is happening in terms of concrete incident, though the constant voice-over narration that is Malick’s stock in trade seems to assure us that it is all very significant.

This impressionistic style has served Malick well in the past, and has also clearly been a boon to other films he’s influenced, such as David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color from earlier this year, each of which used this style of filmmaking to great effect in evoking childhood and the deceptive nature of memory, respectively. However, in striving to reach that sense of the universal, To the Wonder lacks any emotional connection, which would seem to be beneficial to a film about the loss of both love and faith. It is telling that, in the midst of mourning the end of my own five-year relationship, a film about that exact subject from an undeniable master of the cinematic arts failed to leave me with any feelings other than frustration, boredom, and of course, the intermittent thought, “Wow, that certainly is a pretty shot.” For that last, the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deserves more credit than Malick, and it is his work and Bardem’s that stand out to me as the only truly commendable things about the film.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City.

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