If I were making a parody of a Terrence Malick movie, I’d make his new film, To The Wonder. It takes all of his trademarks—softly spoken narration, gorgeous cinematography, orchestral score, poetic ruminations—and forgets why they worked in his other pictures. To The Wonder reveals that Malick’s previous movies succeed because they’re intimate stories painted on a larger canvas. By comparison, To The Wonder is an intimate story about intimacy, so it collapses in on itself as characters endlessly muse on the nature of love without the audience ever sharing that feeling, or any other emotion for that matter. It is a loveless movie about love where all of Malick’s trademarks feel like tricks.
Neil* (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fall in and out of love. She endlessly contemplates the nature of her love and her relationship. During one of their off periods, Neil takes up with his childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). We see the world through her eyes for a bit, then her relationship with Neil falls apart, and we never see her again. There are also sporadic appearances by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who rarely feels joy, but experiences intimacy by caring for the enfeebled in his community. His presence in the larger story briefly crosses over with Marina (who is the film’s main voice), when she tries to find God’s love, which is forbidden from her since she can’t marry Affleck due to having been abandoned but never divorced by her first husband.
As is usually the case with Malick’s movies, the majority of the feelings are conveyed by wordless interactions with the world, and through soft-spoken, poetic dialogue with lines like “You brought me out of the shadows,” and “We climbed the steps to the wonder.” The majority of the dialogue belongs to Marina, but we’ll occasionally hear the feelings of Father Quintana, Jane, and rarely a brief word from Neil (at one point, he narrates the word “Why” and that’s it; I have to respect his brevity when compared to the endless meditations of the other characters).
Malick sets the majority of the movie in Oklahoma, which is a perfect setting in terms of mirroring the characters’ emotions. Because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki can make even a drive-in restaurant look majestic, Oklahoma can appear beautiful when Marina and Neil’s love is blossoming. When their relationship is falling apart, Oklahoma becomes muted and mundane. But no matter how much the cinematography flexes the power of the setting, there’s no escaping the smallness of the story.
There’s nothing wrong with a small, intimate story, but a small, intimate story about intimacy is an absolute chore. Malick’s stories find their humanity because the soft words and gentle movements echo across a big world. Badlands is a love story set during a murder spree. Days of Heaven is about a romantic affair that takes place during the early 20th century, and the movie is shot almost entirely at the magic hour. The Thin Red Line has characters struggling to find peace in the living hell of World War II. The Tree of Life is a family drama nestled inside the history of the friggin’ universe.
We can feel so alone in these vast settings, and Malick has always found the loveliness in both our solitude and our desire to find a place in the universe. To The Wonder tries to show how alone we can be in love, and while love may feel massive, it doesn’t look massive. No matter how good you make a Sonic look, it’s still a Sonic, and an Oklahoma suburb is still an Oklahoma suburb even if you shoot it at dusk. Malick is so scared by loud noises that even the intense moments of love—the sex and the fights—are almost always rendered with silent screams and no sound effects. We’re stuck in this quiet vacuum where nothing moves, and love is devoid of passion. It doesn’t matter how many times we see Neil and Marina or Neil and Jane canoodling or coldly turning away from each other (and we see that a lot). It still feels like an imitation of love. There are so many moments where the screen could fade to white, a Chanel No. 5 bottle could come up, and the ad wouldn’t be out of place.
The redundancy of To the Wonder drains the life out of anything that might make the movie speak above a whisper. Kurylenko has never been better, but there’s only so many times you can see her sadly look off into the distance or playfully wrestle with Affleck before the actions become meaningless. The score and the visuals are gorgeous, but they lose their power in a stagnant picture. One breathtaking shot becomes as good as another because it all blends together in a dreamy haze of ponderous bullshit.
At one point, Marina asks “What is this love that loves us?” The characters may be infatuated with being in love and finding love, but their love barely registers because it’s only spoken of in whispers. The movie isn’t meaningless, and Malick makes some interesting observations about how love is constantly struggling against loneliness, but the struggle is shown as a cool breeze rather than an emotional whirlwind. The love that loves us in To The Wonder is so cold that it may as well be dead.
*I only know the character names because they’re listed in the credits; no one is ever referred to by their name in the story, which makes their love feel even more generalized.
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