To The Wonder is Terrence Malick’s next step in his ongoing crusade to reinvent the way stories are told in movies. His process involves applying the aesthetics of impressionist painters and beat poets to cinematic narrative, replacing conventional notions of story and character development with a kaleidoscope of subjective memories and moments. Malick’s films are no longer built brick-by-brick towards a climax or catharsis, rather they are structured like ornate sandcastles, complex and beautiful but quickly swept away by the rushing tide of the next stunning shot. The overall effect is hypnotic, but instead of a swinging amulet, Malick uses edit points and his characters’ inner monologues to mesmerize and mystify.
In essence, To The Wonder is about the fleeting nexus of three lives: Neil (Ben Affleck), an American environmental engineer, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mom from Paris and Father Ouintana (Javier Bardem), a discouraged priest who wanders the underprivileged streets of Bartlesville, Oklahoma searching for a reason to believe. While on a trip to France, Neil meets the ethereal Marina and, after a few whirlwind romantic days, the couple fall in love and return to Neil’s Oklahoma McMansion to live happily ever after. While Marina slowly adjusts to life on the Southern Plains, Neil encounters an old flame (Rachel McAdams, who appears to have stepped out of a Sooner version of Heathers) signaling Neil’s decision to settle down was premature. Over the coming months, Neil and Marina will find their love and Father Ouintana’s platitudes as empty as Bartleville’s treeless hills, leading to a bitter upheaval.
To The Wonder’s swirling pool of images and ideas is a new approach for an American director but in truth European and Asian filmmakers have traveled similar - if less vigorous - stylistic routes for decades, sometimes to the point of trite overuse. The film’s opening sequence, filmed in Paris and Mont St. Michel, is reminiscent of Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001) and not just for its geography, while To The Wonder’s whispered reveries evoke Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) at its pretentious worst. Despite the film’s sense of wide-open possibilities, one can’t help but feel that Malick misses a few opportunities along the way. His visual transition from Paris to Oklahoma features steel-trussed electrical transmission towers receding to infinity. However, without a shot of the graphically similar Eiffel Tower to precede it, the effect is robbed of its full potential.
To The Wonder is Malick’s third film of the new century; all of them photographed by Emmanuel Lubezky and all of them more or less existentialist delights. However, when the trio is considered en masse it’s reasonable to ask if Malick’s lyrical shorthand isn’t ultimately more limiting than liberating. The New World, The Tree of Life and To The Wonder all feature pivotal female characters who Malick bestows with the depth and gravitas of runway models. Whether it’s Q'orianka Kilcher, Jessica Chastain or the perpetually spinning Olga Kurylenko, Malick’s leading ladies eventually morph into spacey hippie-chicks, howling at the moon while their unruly tresses blow in the wind.
As a stand alone film, there is much about To The Wonder to admire. Not least of which is Malick’s courage in creating a film that purposely stresses beauty over coherence and believing that American moviegoers deserve - and are capable of appreciating - cinema that strives for something beyond spoon-fed pablum. Still, Malick has little to prove by continuing his impressionistic impulses. He has clearly shown he is America’s greatest artistic filmmaker. There are two more Malick/Lubezki collaborations on the docket. I hope the talented twosome will forget about twirling temptresses and muttered musings and explore other cinematic avenues for awhile. It would be a shame if the great Terrence Malick became a parody of himself.