After viewing “To The Wonder”, the latest spiritual odyssey by director Terrence Malick, I experienced puzzlement more than wonder. The film contains the usual pristine visuals and the themes of being awestruck by life and the world. To announce that I was disappointed after watching a Malick movie is a new one for me. I was mesmerized by the profound theological wrestling and truth in “The Tree of Life”. “To the Wonder” left me wanting.
The plot, if one can call it that, involves an Oklahoman man named Neil (Ben Affleck) who falls in passionately in love with a French woman named Mariana (Olga Kurylenko). The opening scenes are at Mont St. Michel to the west of Paris and on the banks of the Seine. We hear narrated love poetry evoked by Mariana in French. Neil asks Mariana to come back to Oklahoma with him with the offer to bring her little daughter Tatiana along.
Once back in Oklahoma, Neil settles into his environmental job and Mariana into a new life among the suburban developments and fields of Oklahoma where she twirls and dances with rays of sunlight pouring down upon her (or something). Long story short, their love starts to slip away. Why? Well, the motives of Affleck’s character are never really developed. Mariana returns to France with her daughter to take care of some business with her ex-husband. While she is gone, Neil begins an affair with an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams). For one reason or another (establishing a consistent theme here), Neil is unable to commit to Jane. Mariana comes back to Oklahoma, gets reconnected with Neil and the two marry in a civil ceremony.
With all of this relationship melodrama going on, we meet Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who is undergoing a massive crisis of faith while ministering to the poor and destitute in Oklahoma.
I suspect what Malick (also the screenwriter) was trying to do here is tie the aspect of faith together with human relational love. While Affleck’s character is severely underdeveloped, the crisis of commitment is mirrored in Father Quintana’s character as he utters prayers through the script as a wrestling with God. He often wanders around his empty and dying church which gives off a profound sense of loneliness to the audience.
I really wanted to like this film as Malick is a moviemaker I deeply respect. He is one of the only filmmakers I can think of whose art involves a fascinating theology and spirituality without being sentimental or cheesy. This film is neither. The weakness here is the lack of a developed plot and characters whose motives are not clear making some scenes appear very cold and distant. The audience doesn’t even remotely understand some of the decisions, by characters, that are made.
Of course, some critics are defending the film and even these elements which I criticized. “To the Wonder” was actually the great film critic Roger Ebert’s last filed review. He writes: “A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision. ‘Well,’ I asked myself, ‘why not?’ Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like.” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/to-the-wonder-2013)
No, a movie need not explain everything and a sense of mystery is almost always welcomed. The problem with “To the Wonder” is the central aspects and indeed very important plot points are not fully explained (if at all). If Malick would have even given us stronger hints of character motivations, that might have made for a better film. Instead, we get excellent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki of France and suburbs/fields of Oklahoma but not much else.
Visually captivating and substantially lacking, “To the Wonder” could have been another extremely compelling picture from Malick. Unfortunately, the project falls short.