Somewhere, somewhen, our culture became openly antagonistic to poetry. And that’s making it too easy to dismiss Terrence Malick for the wrong reasons.
Constructed like a kind of expressionist cinematic free-verse, Malick’s films have created two fairly distinct interpretive camps: the “his movies are transcendently lovely” camp, and the “what’s with all the twirling and voice-over koans and people fondling wheat” camp. After 2011’s stunning The Tree of Life, To the Wonder feels both like the natural next step and a regression for Malick—emotionally ambitious yet perhaps too diffuse to achieve magnificence.
Through all the abstract imagery and even-more-abstract narration, there is a fairly clear central plot: American Neil (Ben Affleck) meets single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris. They fall in love, and she follows him back to Oklahoma with her daughter. Tensions build between them, and Marina briefly returns to Paris, only to return to America without her daughter and ultimately marry Neil.
As long as Malick remains focused on that central story, he finds a powerfully resonant story of the cycles of a relationship through love, uncertainty and despair. Filtering the mundane details of disillusionment through Malick’s unconventional editing rhythms builds that genuine sense for how deeply we can long for a connection beyond ourselves, and how the intrusions of the everyday break us off from the greater bliss we seek in other people, in nature, in God.
Yet, To the Wonder’s gaze
also expands to take in the crisis of faith experienced by a Catholic
priest (Javier Bardem), as well as Neil’s brief affair with an old flame
(Rachel McAdams) during Marina’s return to Paris. And it’s here where
Malick’s reach seems to exceed his grasp, the different plot threads
bumping into one another instead of building a single symphonic
experience. There’s beauty and value in the rare kind of poetry Malick
brings to filmmaking—but even a poem sometimes needs an editor.
TO THE WONDER
Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem