I remember when To the Wonder came out a little over a year ago. It was surprising that director Terrence Malick, known for a long spaces between his projects, would turn around a film so quickly after 2011’s Tree of Life (which I still have yet to see). I remember it being criticized pretty strongly; most everyone came out against this movie for being too Malick-ey even for Malick. I’m sorry to say that I’ll have to agree with that sentiment.
The story, such that it is, is of Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck). They fall in love in France and then move back to Oklahoma where Neil is from. Their romance is rockier than it was at first, and when her green card expires, Marina moves back to France. However, she finds life empty their without Neil. Neil, on the other hand, has taken up with someone he knew previously, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Their romance goes south as well, but Marina comes back and they get married. Love is not without its struggles, and the story of a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his faith is woven in between the battling lovers.
Now, even though I don’t always understand his films, I’m generally a fan of Malick. I really think he went too far here though. He amplifies his usual style, giving us shots of people frolicking through wheat fields gratuitously. Yes, it’s all very beautiful, but there’s only so much this can say about a relationship. These types of shots give us the what of the situation, but not the why. It’s easy to see that the characters are in the love, but you have no idea why. You have no idea why every relationship of Neil’s ends up in chaos and you don’t know why Marina can’t put Neil behind her in Paris.
Regardless, the point of the movie is still pretty clear. Love takes work. It’s not all frolicking in wheat fields and marveling at nature; for some undefined reason (we don’t know it because Malick won’t give it to us) they always split apart when things get harder in their relationships. It’s important to keep going otherwise your life is going to feel empty. And apparently this is always true, because their are no individuals in this movie, except for the priest. The two relationships (Neil and Marina and Neil and Jane) happen in almost exactly the same way, just some of the details of their surroundings are different.
I know I’m missing the whole point of the movie. I know that Malick is going for very basic truths here, not necessarily these characters and their problems. The problem is I think the whole thing got too general. It’s hard to fill a two hour movie with generalizations that take up about two sentences, without a story with actual characters and motivations to help us arrive at the those themes. It’s a movie only with themes and imagery, and not much else. It just didn’t work for me; I wanted to know more specifics.
To the Wonder just didn’t work for me. Malick’s films previous to this have enough style to last his whole career, but here I just think he went overboard. Call me old-fashioned, but I just wanted something as simple as to know why (or at least some clue) as to why the characters were doing what they were doing. Instead I got wheat fields, and lots of them.
Long story short: 2.5/4 stars
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