Less than two years after The Tree of Life, the metaphysical inquiry on the meaning of life that won him the coveted Palme d’Or, the reclusive Terrence Malick, who has made just six films in thirty years, returns with a new exploration of the nature of love and faith. In To the Wonder, Malick offers us a beautiful but somewhat empty exploration of the impossibility of true love in a world that alienates us and confines us to small pockets of wonder in an otherwise lonely and barren existence.
Ben Affleck stars as Neil, an American environmentalist worker, and his complicated and meandering relationships with both Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Jane (Rachel McAdams), recounted alongside Father Quintana’s (Javier Bardem) quest to reclaim his lost faith.
Constructed from fragments of daily life – a walk through the streets of Paris, a stroll through the fields of Oklahoma, a visit to the poor neighbourhoods of Bartlesville – To the Wonder attempts to portray the implications of Neil’s indecision. As Father Quintana preaches, Jesus accepts and forgives the man who commits mistakes, because such mistakes allow for redemption, but condemns the man who refuses to act, thus impeding any real interaction with the world that surrounds him.
Here lies maybe the core of this strange film that is To the Wonder. Malick’s tale is not one of committed resolution, but rather one whose fluid progression advances with the apathy of its main character, slowly, untouched, and ultimately somewhat distanced.
Where Affleck’s stolid stature, his laconic stillness, vividly contrasts with Kurylenko’s surprising physicality and sense of playful vulnerability, his overt detachment and refusal commit hinders the audience’s potential for empathy. But maybe that is the point that Malick is trying to make.
Encroaching on Judd Apatow’s territory, Malick offers us the portrayal of the modern American man, one that rejects any form of authentic engagement, preferring instead a life made of stolen fleeting moments of bliss, pure little snapshots of oblivion. Two hands caressing ferns, a short sensual encounter, a brief exchanged glance, are all he requires.
Much like in The Tree of Life, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography confers to these ephemeral moments a blissful harmony that coats the film with an almost hypnotic quality. Drawn in by the simplicity of a story that needs no words to be told – Malick may be one of the few remaining American directors to truly believe in the power of images to convey a narrative – one finds oneself entranced by those seemingly effortless moments of ecstasy.
However, Malick does not confine himself to simplicity. His narrative is not solely one of daily wonder, but rather one that finds its solace in the idea of a larger design, of an invisible force, call it love or faith, that drives our lives.
Like his previous films, To the Wonder is built around the pursuit of a form of mysticism bordering on religiosity, conveyed through a narrator, which unfortunately often feels didactic and forced. Acting as a constant reminder of the abstract and sermonising message the movie tries to convey, this spoken presence restricts the impact of a film otherwise wonderful in its simplicity by drowning it in metaphysical conundrums and supposedly edifying homilies.
Where To the Wonder might be a minor Malick, its sins rest not in its lack of qualities, but in its excessive pretention, one that leaves its audience pondering the movie that could have been, a simple but profound enquiry into our modern incapacity to engage with one another on more than a superficial level.