There were a lot of viewers who had a “the emperor has no clothes” attitude about Terrence Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life. I disagreed. Malick has gone back to the well for his latest film, To the Wonder, and this time the emperor is buck naked.
Malick, as with The Tree of Life, has teamed with his cinematographer, Emmanuel Luzbecki, to create a poem of images, and To the Wonder is a beautiful film, with several striking images. But the narrative, if you could consider it a narrative, is almost nonexistent, and I was bored and counting the minutes until it was over.
The plot, such as it is, can be summed in this sentence from Wikipedia. The writer should be congratulated for their succinct prose: “A romantic drama centered on an American man who reconnects with a woman
from his hometown after his relationship with a European woman falls
apart. The European woman later returns, but finally leaves again.”
I can add a bit to this. The man is Ben Affleck, who appears to be a representation of some sort of masculine ideal. We hardly ever see his face–I can only remember a few closeups, one of which highlighted his regal chin. We don’t hear him talk much, either. He has a job–he’s some sort of chemist investigating a toxic dump’s effect on local citizens, but this is not amplified upon.
Most of the film is about Olga Kurylenko. She is a Russian living in Paris (I’m surmising on a lot of this–nothing is spelled out) who is in love with Affleck. They enjoy touring the city, and making a visit to Mont St. Michel, and this all looks like a perfume commercial. He asks her to come back to the U.S. with him, along with her ten-year-old daughter.
That turns out to be the wide-open spaces of a small town in Oklahoma. Neither Kurylenko or her daughter are thrilled to be there, and it’s kind of a loaded situation–who would like small-town Oklahoma after living in Paris? Kurylenko leaves, and and Affleck takes up with a local girl (perhaps a previous girlfriend) Rachel McAdams. Again, we get perfume-commercial scenes, this time in the dusty Oklahoma sites. But they have a fight, and she’s gone from the movie, completely.
Kurylenko comes back, sans daughter, and she and Affleck marry. There’s some confusion over whether she has a child or not–I think she does–but things don’t work out. She has an affair, and there’s a striking scene in which she leaves the chain motel with guilt written all over her face.
I should add that all through this there are scenes involving Javier Bardem as the parish priest of the town. I’m not quite sure what he’s doing there, and most of his lines are voiced over in Spanish (Kurylenko also has numerous voiceovers, in French) and seem to indicate he’s not happy with things in general. I can’t say much more, because it’s absolutely incomprehensible.
Malick seems to have targeted the topic of romance, but I have no idea what he means to say. This is a movie that could we watched with the sound off, and perhaps should be.
The acting is mostly the kind that has the actors staring out windows while the narration runs on the soundtrack. I wonder what kind of direction the actors got–were they told what they should be thinking, or were they merely contemplating the banal like what they will have for lunch. Malick is obviously enthralled with how Kurylenko looks, and I’m on board with that, but she doesn’t have the kind of presence that makes up for the little she has to do. What she does most is frolic–either in the streets of Paris or her big backyard in Oklahoma. I think this movie has more frolicking that any movie I’ve ever seen.
To the Wonder is also notable for being the last movie reviewed by Roger Ebert before his death. He was generous and gave it three-and-a-half stars, noting the lack of narrative and giving Malick credit for approaching it that way. Fair enough, but if you’re going to make a movie like this there has to be a reason for watching it other than its poetic images.
My review for To the Wonder: D+