With To the Wonder, Terrence Malick pushes everything to the limit- frankly, he seems hell-bent on testing the faith of his sincerest admirers/fans, threatening to make even the most faithful of us bored to tears. It’s all the best and very worst of him wrapped up into one strange, beautiful, but rather detached, even boring film. Its a further experiment in his cinematic tone poems, in which he edits several hours of footage into two hours of ambient, fragmentary passages with carefully selected (mostly classical) music.
The plot – well, the marketing people will have you believe there is a plot, and furthermore that it’s a love story: Neil (a horribly wasted Ben Affleck) after a romance in Europe, returns to America with single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko, who is radiant throughout) and her child. Marina has to return to Europe as the relationship fractures, Neil finding a new romance with an old flame of his youth, Jane (Rachel McAdams). To be honest, there isn’t much of a story at all, and much of what I have just said can hardly be gleaned from just watching the movie. It’s mostly what the marketing people are telling us happens, because, quite frankly, the film itself hardly bothers to tell the viewer even that. Marin leaves, Jane turns up. Marina returns, Jane disappears. Neil is passive throughout, as if unsure what he or the director wants. None of it is really explained, there is hardly any dialogue or exposition at all. Apparently random, albeit artistic, vignettes pass before us, of characters staring at each other, or away from each other. Walking towards each other, or walking away from each other. Embracing, fighting. Shopping. They hardly speak. Voice-overs and mutterings litter the sound-scape so quietly I’m not even sure we are meant to hear them, but its mostly not in English anyway, so subtitles often help us out. I guess that’s the point; like in all Malick’s work, everything is subjective, it’s up to the viewer to decide what has happened. The film is almost like a mirror, shouting at us what do you see? What is going on?
Which is all very well and good when there is a story being told at the same time, from which we can glean/decide subjective meaning, however arbitrary, from the events portrayed. We knew The Thin Red Line was a war movie, even though subjectively we know its really about nature, our place in it, how we bring arbitrary values of good and evil to it. We knew that Tree of Life was telling the story of a family, of small human transient lives put into perspective against the grandest panorama of Creation, of The Beginning and The End. So while that film has meanings we ourselves give it, it was still telling a story. To the Wonder doesn’t really have that, its all rather aimless and irritating, as aimless as Javier Bardem’s pointless Father Quintana sullenly moping around his congregation muttering vaguely about love and Christ. Surely Malick has pushed his beautiful cinematic tone-poems as far as they can go.