With almost no dialogue, a wisp of a story and a vigorous repetition of images and sound Terrence Malick has entered full-on self-indulgent mode in this relative quickie from the revered enigmatic director. However beautiful and elegant the imagery is, given the issues noted above we can feel the director's hand at work creating a greater disconnect between style and substance than in any of his previous films.
To the Wonder (2012) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
By Alan Bacchus
When we look back on Malick's career I have no doubt that To the Wonder and Tree of Life will inexorably be linked together. The small amount of time between these films makes them seem like Siamese twins. Although in each of Malick's films there's a commonality in his use of voiceover and a fetishness with respect to the relationship between his human characters and nature, his style and tone change ever so slightly with each picture. But in To the Wonder and Tree of Life his wide-angle roving camera work, as lensed by Emmanuel Lubeszki, never stops moving and subliminally links these two films. In fact, as per the final credits, Malick even uses footage shot for Tree of Life in To the Wonder.
While Tree of Life spans the life of the universe before settling into a short period in 1950s Texas, here we're in contemporary Oklahoma. Well, first we're in France to establish the frolicking love affair between Neil (Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko), an American and a European drinking in the culture of Europe's landmarks, including the luscious mystique of Mont Saint-Michel.
Then Malick moves Marina and her daughter to Neil's home in Bertlesville, OK, the worst kind of antiseptic suburbia imaginable with huge cookie-cutter houses, big-box stores and cul de sacs barren of foliage other than then manicured lawns. Malick charts the disillusionment of Marina's and Neil's marriage starting with Marina's inability to adapt to the environment, but even deeper, her inability to connect with Neil.
With only orchestral music (some composed, but mostly classical pieces), a disconnected voiceover and scraps of dialogue from the actors, To the Wonder pushes the Terrence Malick aesthetic to the extreme. In fact, there's almost no dialogue with some from Kurylenko and Bardem and none from Affleck. In fact, Affleck seems less of a character and more of a mere presence, an anonymous male figure in Marina's life representative of the foreign land in which she lives but never really connects with.
Rachel McAdams, in a minor role really, enters as a former girlfriend with whom Neil has an affair while he is separated from Marina. When Marina returns to America married and with a full green card in hand life is not better but worse, a down slide into emotional hell culminating in another act of infidelity.
As an experiment in narrative story telling with Malick's unique visual sensibilities, we have to admire the artist's attempt to push the medium beyond conventionality. And certainly at less than two hours in length, despite the massive critical disparity between the two films, the experience will be more accessible to some than the lauded Tree of Life.
But at the end of the day, this experiment just doesn't sustain itself and fails to generate the emotional attachment to the character that Malick desires of his audience. Thus, the break-up between Neil and Marina fails to move us, leaving us only with a shrug of acknowledgement or admiration that Malick managed to show a film about a romance and break-up without any dialogue.