Released in 2012, To the Wonder marks the shortest timeframe between Terrence Malick films – with Palme D’Or winner Tree of Life dominating 2011. To the Wonder didn’t garner the same attention as Tree of Life, but it holds a similar DNA as it dreamily reflects on the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). As an artist, Malick reacts to the moment and ruthlessly excises unnecessary characters and ideas if they do not relate to the core-story he is trying to tell. The Thin Red Line removed performances by Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke, while To The Wonder removed characters portrayed by Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper and Jessica Chastain. Creatively, this demonstrates a sense of expression that is honest and true. At this point in his career (and his success in 2011) he has absolute freedom and the final edit is absolutely what he wants – unlike Clooney in The Thin Red Line, whereby studios forced him to include an A-List star. Additionally, Oscar-winner Ben Affleck appears in the film and, rather than an acting job alone, Affleck was bound to use this opportunity to observe what many believe is one of the greatest living directors, on the job.
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset/ Sunrise/ Midnight triptych philosophises on relationships through constant dialogue between characters. Whether relatable or not, give the impression that lead characters Celine and Jesse are a little too self-involved. To the Wonder doesn’t philosophise with excessive dialogue and, instead, manages to explore similar issues by using extreme close-ups of intimate moments to direct our attention.
Marina (Kurylenko) is front and centre as we see her relationship begin (in Paris) and break down (in the USA), through an obsession towards her American lover Neil (Affleck). The opening of the film depicts the only moments of hand-held video-recording as Neil and Marina are deeply falling for each other. Malick remains close to the couple throughout and the subtlety of hands caressing and feeling for each other, while they laugh and smile, romantically set the foundations of this film as a deeply personal story. The relationship in Badlands hints at an almost self-destructive journey as Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are on the run – To the Wonder doesn’t seem to hold such pessimism in these opening moments.
Beauty and romance are overpowering in these early scenes. The addition of Marina’s daughter (Tatiana Chiline) provides Neil with a paternal role, which he manages to live up to. Again, akin to Linklater’s trilogy, it romanticises Europe – and Paris in particular (the setting for Before Sunrise) – in the opening. Before transferring the film to Oklahoma, and the suburban lifestyle Neil affords through his environment-inspector profession.
Outside of the relationship, in Oklahoma, we are also introduced to Catholic Priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). He supports Marina while he has a crisis of faith on his own. The separation in story as we see Quintana visit the poverty-stricken citizens of the town invites comparison – as does the re-location from France to America. Did Marina and Neil fall in love because of the journey they shared? Or whether the static moments in the US, combined with the industrial surroundings, are what chipped away at their initial moments of happiness? We also reflect on the “struggles” they have, as we also see the challenges of other town members, visited by Father Quintana. Marina and Neil are unique and lucky to have each other in such comfortable circumstances. Quintana’s support of them is potentially the reason he has this crisis, especially when you consider the support he offers those in prison that far outweigh Marina and Neil’s sense of confinement and apparent lack of love.
Jane (Rachel McAdams) is described as Neil’s lost-love and becomes the woman he conducts an affair with. This period is ambiguous, as Marina now sees the tall, modern buildings of Paris as oppressive and dreams of the beauty in the endless fields and landscape. The same landscape Neil and Jane conduct their affair upon. It begs the question as to whether Jane exists at all, considering the perspective is primarily Marina’s and the two never appear to meet. Is it these thoughts of hers that pre-empt the end of their relationship? Does Marina imagine that she’s not good enough, in turn prompting her to destroy their marriage? Ambiguity is what Malick does best and I can only marvel at the endless questions that arise from these various plot-threads.
To The Wonder remains a strong example of Malick’s vision, as waving fields of grass and graceful horses inhabit a world whereby peace and solace can be found – and these moments of peace are what Malick effortlessly portrays. But this is a story about one couple in a large world – the scale of Tree of Life managed to truly live up to the planet-wide relevance, while To the Wonder remains small in scale and, as such, it fails to resonate in the same manner. Edward-Hopper-inspired depictions of a laundrette, show an appreciation and love of America. This is the strength of the film; indeed, the strength of all Malick’s films. But, in the closing moments, Marina seems to direct our attention to nature – and the intertwined nature of womanhood and faith. ‘Where is God in such impoverished circumstances?’ we ask, and the answer seems to be within nature. Something that maybe Malick is arguing America has lost an appreciation for. To the Wonder seems to be the female portrait of life opposed to the structured, purposeful-focus of Tree of Life. In Tree of Life we see a man reflect on his upbringing and imagine where his whole life is due to lead; To the Wonder is more organic and ambiguous as Marina wanders through and follows her emotion and her passion for life. We can only adore such ambition and passion for filmmaking, as Malick shows here.
This post was originally published for Flickering Myth on 17th June 2013