‘You shall love. Whether you like it or not.’ If director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) was his Hollywood movie, then To the Wonder (2013) is his indie flick. Please understand that Malick is my favorite director. Therefore, he is like my wife. I am blinded with love and may not be the most cynical critic for this film. With that said, this film was deeply moving, uplifting, and depressing. A film that every person should experience.
Different people have different ways of watching movies, just as they have different ways of learning. You have the viewer who prefers special effects, blood and guts, and brainless visual pleasures. Then there are those that need engaging dialogue or unique topics in order to stay interested. There is one trait that most moviegoers don’t possess that is required for any Malick film, however, and that is patience and flexibility.
To the Wonder tackles much smaller aspects of the universe than The Tree of Life, in which Malick focuses on many existential topics including creationism, morality, childhood, and parental love, whereas To the Wonder deals with more personal feelings of betrayal, love, and having no connection with the world.
It wasn’t until halfway through the film that it was a companion piece to The Tree of Life and The New World (2005) – each is about a person trying to find their place in the world, about trying to find that connection, that relationship. To the Wonder captures an essence of that unrefined love and heartbreak that can only be produced within a relationship—whether the relationship is with your child, lover, or God. Malick presents a love triangle that wrestles with these emotions that everyone has felt at some point in their life.
The Tree of Life was told through the eyes of the family’s eldest child and, during some portions, even Mother Nature, whereas To the Wonder is told mostly through the eyes of a lonely housewife and a priest who is questioning his beliefs. Therefore, you have to put yourself into their situations in order to understand the message being told.
To put my love for Malick into context, The Thin Red Line (1998) was one of the first films I watched growing up that required me to grow up a little in order to truly appreciate what I was watching. It was this film that made me realize that I had a greater interest in the pictures being shown on screen. The music. The pictures. The environment. The content. Everything in Malick’s film spoke to me. I could see what he wanted me to see by showing so little. I compare Terrence Malick films to Pink Floyd. You either consider their works complete rubbish or a life-altering experience.
In To The Wonder, there is very little dialogue and storyline. Images move across the screen and ask for your engagement in order to be understood. Every image is trying to communicate to you. When dialogue does occur, it means something.
‘Emotions they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling. You show love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal; you fear your love has died. You perhaps are waiting to be transformed into something higher.’ These are the words spoken by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who has lost his love for God. From the slums within his town to the bedsides at the hospice center, he is searching for meaning. He gave his life to serve God, but no longer loves him, yet he continues to serve because he made the decision.
Father Quintana is only a part of the story. Merina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) meet in Paris and he asks for her and her daughter to move to America. Each person resembles where they come from. France is shown as a landscape with unparalleled beauty. There are everlasting oceans and energetic, lively cities. Cities with determined, but content people. There are buildings and sprawling trees. There isn’t much space in the city, but the land feels free and uplifting. As for America, it is shown as a place of sprawling landscapes. It’s a place where anything can be built (and will be built) but is also the place where the earth is pillaged to the detriment of the local population. America is lonely, ugly, and orderly. America’s open spaces and lack of character are suffocating. We don’t see lively people in its streets. We see parades with people in wheelchairs, obesity and oil production.
Through Malick’s way of showing more images than dialogue, he portrays Merina as a woman of natural beauty who is not afraid to show her happiness. Neil, on the other hand, doesn’t show any of his emotions while in public. Soon after Merina moves to the States, she and her daughter no longer love Neil and move back to Paris. Neil rekindles a lost love in Jane (Rachel McAdams). Just as quickly as their love flared it was smothered.
Merina moves back to the US under questionable pretenses, and there is still something missing. She takes refuge in Father Quintana, another foreign friend, and another man. We see recurring images of water and its sources. To great effect, we see polluted streams and sweeping oceans. I believe this is Malick’s method of showing that in order for love to be sustainable it needs a natural source.
One of the reasons why I have declared The Tree of Life to be my favorite film of all time is how deeply I associated with its main character. I related to the young child as he began to comprehend the world. How the child makes the connection when he is no longer a child and will soon become an adult. Maybe it is because I have always had such a great relationship with my wife, but I just couldn’t connect with anything the main characters were feeling during To the Wonder. Well, I guess I did connect with Merina in her disgust for Neil.
Known for getting any actor he wishes, Malick gives the audience Ben Affleck, who was unfortunately a terrible choice. In fact, it was the worst possible choice. Every scene with him was a fracture to the soul of this otherwise beautiful film. I cannot express the unmoving portrayal this ‘A-list’ ‘actor’ ‘performed’. Affleck is always walking behind the women in such an awkward way that you’d think he’s clinching a penny between his butt cheeks. Every shot of him from behind, it looks like he’s clinching his back muscles, while Merina moves with fluidity and childlike vulnerability. Pauly Shore would’ve given a better performance.
So, was this film a masterpiece or a miss? You’ll have to be the judge. For me, if Affleck would have instead directed another movie about himself being the hero and saved this role for someone with more talent, I really think it could’ve been a masterpiece.
The brightest spot of this film was Kurylenko. Every look and every motion seems legitimate and genuine. Every frame belonged to her. Just as Jessica Chastain soared in The Tree of Life, Kurylenko matches the spirit of the film and takes it to new levels. Thankfully, she was up to the task.
Overall, To the Wonder is a film of raw emotions, yet most people will despise it. If you’ve never seen a Malick film before, I will recommend The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven (1978) and The New World, in that order, before I’d recommend To the Wonder. Still, for me (even with Affleck), it is and will be one of the year’s best.
112 mins. In English, French, Spanish and Italian.