After falling for each other in France, Neil (Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko) move to Oklahoma so they can start a life together. When the spark starts to fade, however, Neil reconnects with an old flame (McAdams), and Marina meets a priest (Bardem) who’s experiencing a crisis of faith…
According to Ben Affleck, To The Wonder “makes The Tree Of Life look like Transformers.” Humorous exaggeration aside, you can see where he’s coming from. Despite being Terrence Malick’s first film set entirely in the present, it’s arguably his most Malick-y to date. The lingering nature porn, the reflective voiceover, the abstract approach to ‘narrative’ (which is a loose term here); all the enigmatic filmmaker’s usual calling cards are employed to such an extent that it often feels like we’re watching a Malick parody. As such, there’s nothing here to convince his critics, while average cinemagoers – or anyone looking for something in the realms of conventional filmmaking – will be utterly baffled.
Perhaps more telling, though, is the fact that even Malick’s fans have been left cold. Visually, To The Wonder is absolutely stunning, as Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have such fine eyes for striking imagery that they even make sludge look artistic. But open-spaced beauty and magic hour lighting is no substitute for plot or drama, however, and here the story is impressionistic even by Malick’s usual spotty standards. More a collage of unspoken moments than an actual narrative, there’s no character conversation whatsoever, leaving us with so little information that it’s just impossible to care about what’s going on. Imagine a film where the director cuts away every time the characters are about to speak to each other, and you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
Speaking of cutting, Ben Affleck and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko survived the usual Malick editing room cull, but Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen and Amanda Peet did not. Affleck looks uncomfortable, though, and Kurylenko spends far too much time pirouetting about in supermarkets or fields. Javier Bardem is fine, but his ‘plot’, rather ironically, feels unconnected and disposable. There’s the odd haunting moment, here and there, but mostly it just feels empty.
Arguably Terrence Malick’s most Malick-y film to date, at times To The Wonder feels like a Malick parody. Visually, it’s absolutely stunning, but the ‘story’ is abstract even by his standards.