The Tree Of Life, Terrence Malick’s audience-splitting 2011 Palme D’Or winner, was the man’s fifth film in a 40 year career. For those watching who look forward to seeing what he comes up with next, patience is a prerequisite. Inevitably then, the arrival of To The Wonder a short 18 months on has led many to approach this new film as a companion piece. The assumption is that they are born of the same DNA, the cinematic equivalent of Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac albums when they were released just months apart. Two beasts spawned from the same alchemy. It’s a justifiable conclusion. The two films share a particular visual language and would play as a seamless double bill, yet like those two Radiohead records, they have their own distinct sensibilities setting them apart.
Where Radiohead’s Kid A was the more austere older sibling to Amnesiac‘s teething newborn, so The Tree Of Life feels like the stately elder gentleman to To The Wonder‘s more youthful romantic. This film is the lighter of the two, seemingly so charmed by the grace and beauty of love that it can barely stay on the ground. Like a helium balloon let slip of its owner’s fingers, To The Wonder constantly feels as though it is slipping away into the atmosphere at magic hour.
Set wholly in the present – a first for Malick – it tells the ‘story’ of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). He is a buttoned down American, reserved and cautious with his feelings, she is a free-spirited single mother of Russian-French descent. The first glimmers of their relationship – the honeymoon period – are captured in a beautiful opening stretch at Mont Saint-Michel before Neil invites Marina and daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) back with him to the expansive suburbia of Oklahoma’s grasslands. The film settles here, amid affluent homes with open gardens and an aura of innocence harking back to the prosperity of the 50’s.
Marina’s visa expires and she must return home, a place she now finds insufferable. Meanwhile, Neil reunites with an old flame – farmer’s daughter Jane (Rachel McAdams) – before marrying Marina in order to secure her green card. And so over two languid hours Malick is allowed to explore different facets of love, from devotion to compromise, contentment to restlessness.
As a counterpoint, we summarily touch base with disillusioned priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) as he attempts to connect with members of his parish, only to feel inexplicably withdrawn from them and uncertain of God’s place in a world he exiles himself from.
To The Wonder unsurprisingly looks every bit as beautiful as The Tree Of Life did. Again Malick uses a collage effect to reveal his world. His camera glides and drifts, lilts and whirls, whilst a team of editors have assisted him in taking the pieces and building them into a fluid whole. With barely a word spoken in the film, Malick again collides his dizzying images with a dominant, lush score (this time provided by Hanan Townsend). If To The Wonder is triumphant, it is in the synergy between sound and image.
Malick constructs films out of fragments, snatching moments of grace and compiling them, cutting around the conversations and dramas that form the building blocks of most dramas, showing us instead the mezzanine places that his characters inhabit. As such there is a sustained sense of transition – Neil and Marina forever seem to be half unpacked, living and loving in unfurnished rooms like nomadic souls not chained to the world. His eye is restless also, forever roaming, or leaving the action to chase a flock of birds taking flight. It is an undeniably gorgeous technique, yet it is one that is not without its frustrations.
Tics from Malick’s previous films come to the fore here more than ever. A preoccupation with lost souls wandering through fields, blades of grass sifted through fingers, people adrift in doorways or lying together in empty bedrooms, the play of light across a forehead. A general disinterest in dialogue. The film is almost entirely narrated in hushed tones by its characters, as with The Tree Of Life and The Thin Red Line before it, these disjointed monologues take the form of prayers or musings – disconnected thoughts, half-finished and yearning.
The effect can be detrimental. Ben Affleck, despite appearing in nearly every scene, may as well not be in the movie at all. Both spoken and narrated, he probably has less than ten lines of dialogue in the whole film, and at least half of these are mumbled inaudibly. He is left to stand as though lost, knitting his brow in an effort to appear troubled or rueful. He is not expressive enough. He has no range. His Neil is a ghost, vacant and closed down. So much so, in fact, that one wonders what Marina and Jane see in him. They both pledge their love and devotion to him. One wonders… why?
Thank heavens then for Olga Kurylenko who fills the film with life. With a heart on her sleeve she plays Marina as a child grown older, a beautiful vision waiting to be broken. As much as To The Wonder‘s technique appears to take precedence over its actors, Kurylenko shines brightly enough to at least partially redress the balance. In contrast, Javier Bardem is this movie’s Sean Penn; completely wasted in scenes which do little to enhance the film whatsoever and might arguably have served To The Wonder better if they had been cut completely.
What they do add is a pronounced religious voice to Malick’s film, one which has been there in previous works, but never quite so dominantly. However, as Neil and Marina struggle to maintain a harmonious existence together it appears as though Malick is ultimately suggesting that men and women simply cannot live to God’s mandate. That the bond of marriage is against our own fallible natures. We are too imperfect for such romance.
In Malick’s film God is not in the pages of the bible, but in the world outside of it. To The Wonder is frequently breathtaking, some of its scattered images will remain highlights of the year – a herd of bison peacefully surrounding a car, Kurylenko playing on shifting sands at dusk. They are glorious moments, but just moments. Catching To The Wonder is like catching a snowflake. Despite reaching for meaning and understanding, it slips through your fingers like air. There is as much here to praise as there is to lament, making for a rich but strangely unsatisfying experience. There’s no denying the impeccable craft and earnestness, but To The Wonder offers as much indifference as it does awe.