There really is no other filmmaker in the world like Terrence Malick. It even feels slightly incorrect to call him a "filmmaker", more a philosopher who uses cinema as his medium to explore deeper questions of humanity and existence. His films aren't so much films as tone poems, where details of narrative and exposition are secondary to the more sensory experiences film can offer. With his first film since his divisive epic 'The Tree of Life' (2011), Malick pushes his idiosyncratic style even further with 'To The Wonder', one of his most intimate to date.
Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in France and fall in love. Neil asks Marina to move back with him to Oklahoma, along with her daughter. Very quickly, though, the love that bound them together begins to fracture, and so does their household. Marina, becoming increasingly emotionally unstable, turns her eyes back to her homeland, while Neil's eyes begin to fall on a long-lost love, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Weaved amongst these characters and seeking an understanding for what love is, a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), looks towards the heavens for some kind of sign for his own understanding of how love shapes the world.
After encompassing the scope of human existence in 'The Tree of Life', 'To The Wonder' seems like quite a minor film for Malick. It's certainly the most intimate and low-key since his 1978 masterpiece 'Days of Heaven'. Rather than working on a sweeping canvas, Malick focuses on this splintering love triangle with microscopic precision, Emmanuel Lubezki driving his camera right into the most intimate of moments, often without compromise. The director and cinematographer take their improvisational style further than ever before, capturing much incidental natural beauty and tiny moments others may have lost. For the first time, however, the method demonstrates its failings, and while it may have worked on Malick's larger pictures, the intimate scope and barest semblance of a narrative means their working methods can be seen for what they are: moments of nature captured for their beauty but with not much thematic connection to the central thrust of the film. Malick shapes his films in the editing room, trusting his gut and creating work immensely personal and unusual. There is a sense, watching 'To The Wonder', that this is a film not entirely sure of what it is, or at least wasn't during the shooting. There isn't the connecting thematic skeleton that tended to hold his previous works together, and while 'To The Wonder' is still a visually and aurally breathtaking experience, it doesn't possess the aching poetry of 'Days of Heaven' or 'The New World' (2005), or the devastating emotional resonance of 'The Tree of Life'.
TO THE WONDER - TRAILER
This also makes assessments of the performances hard to nail. Over-arching narration from the characters is a trope of Malick's films, but in this case, incidental dialogue is almost non-existent, especially with the four leads. Actors are part of the landscape of the film as much as its point of focus, and as such, Affleck and Bardem seem to disappear into the film. They're both excellent, but neither is particularly memorable. Thanks to the unstable psychology of Marina, Kurylenko makes a much stronger impression, a free spirit being stifled by the restricting expectations of modern love. She proves herself willing to Malick's demands, and gives one of her finest performances. This, along with her great turn in 'Oblivion', signal her finally emerging from the shadow of her Bond Girl status. Rachel McAdams is also wonderful, even with her limited screen time, mostly due to the fact that she looks so incredibly beautiful. Malick fills the film with non-actors, to represent the struggling poor residents living near the development where Neil and Marina have settled. Their spontaneity is wonderful and textured, and give a seemingly unnecessary subplot more energy and resonance.
'To The Wonder' seems like quite a minor film for Malick.
'To The Wonder' may turn out to be Malick's most divisive film so far. General audience will most likely reject his unconventional style (and certainly did the night I saw it), and Malick fans may become frustrated with how far Malick has pushes his idiosyncrasies at the cost of clarity or a central focus. It is, however, very much a Terrence Malick film, and possesses all of the elements that make every one of his films an event worth experiencing. 'To The Wonder' is immensely beautiful, a quiet meditation on love and its function in our time. It's a minor film in his canon, but after exploring the Pacific War, the colonisation of the Americas and the very question of human existence, who can blame him for taking a momentary cinematic breath? For a filmmaker so intensely intellectual, his films - this one in particular - work best when you simply lie back and bathe in them, like the cool water of a bubbling stream. Regardless of its minor disappointments, 'To The Wonder' makes it very clear that Terrence Malick is still one of the most unusual, important, precious and greatest filmmakers the medium has ever had.