NOTE: This review was first published on September 12, 2012 after I saw it at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival. I am reposting it today as it opens in limited theaters this weekend.
Terrence Malick‘s To the Wonder is The Tree of Life 2 though on a much smaller scale. It’s also what appears to be a signal Malick is no longer interested in traditional narratives. While the story is told in a linear fashion, I’d be shocked if more than 10-percent of it contained dialogue that wasn’t voice over and the number of shots focused on water and the distant sun on the horizon have to fill almost half the picture. I say none of this as an all-encompassing complaint, merely an indicator of what you’re in for.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again captures the sun-kissed world the same as he did in Tree of Life and, as expected, it’s beautiful, but is it also pointless? To the Wonder is filled with so many random shots of water, walking in wheat fields, twirling in the backyard and bedroom wrestling it’s more of a 112-minute visual poem than it is a movie, told through the collective voices of its four main characters.
It’s a menagerie of pretty images and narrative suggestions that allow the viewer to make of it what they will, big or small. The story can really “mean” anything, not the least of which being the search for God on an Earth that appears to be poisoned from within. Has God forsaken us?
The story is largely guided by the voice over from Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem, two characters out of their “element” as it were. Their voice over is in their native language and neither is happy with their surroundings. Kurylenko plays Marina, who’s come to Oklahoma with her boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), but upon arrival her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) isn’t fitting in. Eventually, she returns to Paris and Neil begins a relationship with a local woman (Rachel McAdams).
Bardem, playing Father Quintana, has conversations with Marina before she decides to return home, but he too is lost and alone, searching throughout the entire film for what I initially presumed was a lost love, but soon came to realize he was searching for God. Searching for answers. His search takes him door-to-door while Neil’s job has him testing ground samples where toxins have been found and residents complain of a black ooze rising from the cracks in their porch.
This is the playing field you have to work with. Certainly there is a bit more to it than I have revealed so as not to ruin the experience for you, but from a story perspective these are the roots. The characters wander aimlessly within this space as their voice over puts thoughts in our heads to accompany the images on screen. None of these thoughts are entirely clear, meant more as suggestions pointing you on an eventual path.
The most curious thing about the voice over, though, is Malick’s decision to have the characters narrate the film in their native language. Kurylenko speaking in French, Bardem in Spanish and Affleck and McAdams in English. The official synopsis refers to Kurylenko and Bardem’s characters as “exiles” living in America. Both wish to return to their native country, and who could blame them, considering the soil has not only been poisoned, but it’s suggested so have the people and animals living there.
Is this a message aimed not at the Earth as a whole, but at the state of America today? There’s certainly something to this as Malick’s coverage of a grocery store treats it as an obvious example of excess as Marina’s daughter marvels at its size. It’s the second time we are made to look at closely at America, the first of which being the dramatic shift from the streets of Paris to the barren Oklahoma landscape. What it all means is for the audience to decide, I’m certainly feeling around in the dark for meaning.
This, however, is exactly what the film does. It presents nuggets of ideas and leaves them for you to interpret. I usually like this technique, but when it is this ambiguous and grey it becomes a little tiresome.
There’s nothing to say regarding the performances unless smiling, gazing in the distance or seductive glances are considered acting. The actors are nothing more than pieces of Malick’s landscape doing as he wishes. They are the pretty people in a world where the sun is eternally on the horizon, its rays glancing over a shoulder, between the leaves in a tree or through a hole in the fence.
The film gets its title from the medieval site of Mont Saint-Michel, nicknamed “The Wonder of the Western World“. Located in Normandy, France, Marina and Neil visit this site in the film’s opening moment. At the top stands a church and a statue of St. Michael the Archangel. The film’s religious elements are unmistakable and it won’t be the last time Malick returns to this location.
To the Wonder, upon reflection, is a film that melts into your mind and is impossible to forget due to its visuals. Instead of calling it a movie I would say it’s more of a tone poem, a symphonic movement of visuals in 112 minutes. The mistake is to look at it as a movie and expect a compelling narrative. Whether it’s compelling or not could be argued for hours.
Also, to say a film is poetic is often to jump to the conclusion that means it’s great. For many To the Wonder will be great, they’ll take more out of it than I did and for that I will be jealous. I can appreciate it for what it is, and discussing it was entertaining, but for as filled as it is with lush imagery, a lot of that imagery felt empty in meaning.