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Malick Offers A Dazzling Experiment In ‘To The Wonder’

Arts & Review Editor

Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013

Updated: Sunday, April 21, 2013 18:04

Terrence Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, like his acclaimed previous works—most recently 2005’s Pocahontas tale The New World and 2011’s polarizing The Tree of Life—is a bold exercise in pushing the experimental limits of commercial filmmaking. As ever, the reclusive Malick works with a sizable budget and acclaimed Hollywood stars to create movies that nonetheless break the rules of “acceptable” storytelling. To the Wonder is a love story at its core, but it’s a story communicated with barely any dialogue, impressionistic handheld camera work, quick editing, and enigmatic voiceovers. Malick’s style may infuriate many viewers, yet for those in tune with his sensibilities, the results are astonishing. To the Wonder is not Malick’s finest, and some of the film’s missteps reveal the limits of his stylistic conceits—but on balance the movie is a deeply personal, ravishing exploration of the trials of love.

Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko star as the movie’s central couple, Neil and Marina, who meet and fall in love in Paris and whose romance is cemented by a voyage to Mont St. Michel—the titular “wonder.” Marina, a Ukrainian divorcee with a 10-year-old daughter, decides to move to Oklahoma to begin a new life with Neil. Their idyllic romance is soon tested by Marina’s struggle to assimilate in a foreign land, and the reappearance of Neil’s old flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). Juxtaposed against this love triangle is the story of a local Spanish priest (Javier Bardem) undergoing a crisis of faith, struggling to find his love in God even as Neil and Marina seek love in each other.

It is a sign of how unique To the Wonder is among the pantheon of romance movies that Affleck’s character is never actually named, except in the credits, and has only a handful of lines throughout nearly two hours of run time. The movie is not interested in assigning its characters developed backstories or conventional psychological motives. Instead, the movie dwells on their physical presences—the way they look at each other, the way they move, the way their eyes touch or don’t—while penetrating to their innermost thoughts through voiceover. In this way, To the Wonder is both grounded in tangible details of the real world and concerned profoundly with the existence of a higher one.

Some of the movie’s most moving scenes focus on Bardem’s Fr. Quintana character, a brooding priest whose lonely existence and ministry to the poor and drug-addicted locals of his town strain his faith. Malick’s evocation of run-down humanity and poverty is striking for a director so often criticized for only focusing on pretty faces. Indeed, Quintana’s struggle to find spiritual love in the most beleaguered of places is often more compelling than the central romance.

The main problem with To the Wonder—though not a crippling one—is Malick’s tendency to overindulge stylistically. There are a few too many luminous shots of wheat fields, a few too many scenes of Marina twirling in a sundress while Neil looks glumly on. Make no mistake, the images themselves are beautiful, and the collaborative team of Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and production designer Jack Fisk are unmatched in their ability to render a stunning composition every time. That’s central to Malick’s vision, of course: he is intent upon finding the beauty in everyday life, and exploring the truly cinematic possibility of a story told entirely through images. Yet at times the film takes its visual extravagance too far, to the point of needless repetition.

At its best, though, To the Wonder unlocks cinematic possibilities that most filmmakers do not dare to explore. The success of Malick’s style lies in its ability to create both fleeting sensory thrills and a lasting mood of contemplation. Many passages of To the Wonder evoke just that balance, producing a kind of cinematic poetry that is quite distinct from typical narrative styles. Even when Malick’s vision occasionally clouds over, his ambition is noble, encouraging us to see with new eyes.

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