To the Wonder

To the Wonder

  • Most movies are the equivalent of visualized novellas wherein plot, character and theme coalesce into a finished product that we can, at the very least, summarize. To the Wonder is not such a movie. It is a visualized epic poem with the goal of showing a feeling through compelling images and moving audio. At times, it succeeds; there is no doubt various images, especially when edited together, portray love. Other times, To the Wonder fails.
  • Writer/director Terrence Malick dares to do something different, and I value his creativity, his ingenuity. His motion pictures offer an experience few other films give. In this era of remakes and reboots that makes his flicks interesting.
  • In To the Wonder, I also sometimes value Malick’s ability. Neil’s (Ben Affleck) love affair with Jane (Rachel McAdams), for instance, is slickly edited and compellingly shot. We know how both of these characters feel, even though Neil has roughly three lines of dialogue and Jane approaches ten.  Even more impressively, when the affair ends, I felt, on a visceral level, Jane’s pain, her anger, her sense of betrayal.
  • Ditto that for Father Quintana’s (Javier Bardem) emptiness. Quintana has lost his faith and is begging Jesus to offer some sign, some direction. He never gets it, of course, and when Quintana hides from a parishioner who needs his help, or when he administers a wedding with a vacant look on his face, or even when he makes his way through a prison, half-heartedly hearing the convicts’ prayers, I felt Quintana’s lonliness. I felt it in the pit of my stomach and found myself wishing Jesus would do something, anything, to show me (and Quintana) that the priest’s path had not been in vain.
  • When Marina (Olga Kurylenko) Skypes with her distant daughter, I also felt Marina’s pain. The stunted conversation between mother and ten-year-old daughter might be To the Wonder’s greatest moment, insofar as it conveys so much using so little.
  • The actors have a difficult job in To the Wonder. Like actors in any film, they have to show us their characters’ experiences, but unlike other actors, they rarely get to speak. Javier Bardem and Rachel McAdams both handle this task without glitch. They are fantastic. Olga Kurylenko as Marina is also terrific, most of the time showing us Marina’s determination to make things work with Neil and her underlying frustration with his emotional unavailability.
  • Ben Affleck is less good as Neil. Only once does he truly emote. When he does, Affleck evokes the most visceral feeling in To the Wonder, making us sense Marina’s regret and, even more, her fear. It is a powerful moment, but it is also a solitary one. Most of the time Affleck stands stoically as McAdams or Kurylenko move around him, the women emoting at every turn and Affleck remaining affectless.
  • I don’t know whom to blame for Affleck’s stoicism, though. Probably more than any other 2013 film, To the Wonder hinges on its director, not its cast. For that reason, I think Affleck might do as Malick directs. I can even see reason  Malick wants Affleck to be emotionless; Neil is to the female leads as Jesus is to Quintana. They love him and they want to believe in him, but they need him to be more available.
  • Therein, however, is the film’s biggest problem. Neil doesn’t do much, except have sex, occasionally get angry, come close to abusing Marina, and wander around the environment checking for pollution. What little we do see from Neil is not positive. He seems like a distant and abusive jerk, not a fascinating and lovable but flawed man. It is, in other words, hard to see why two different women attach so strongly to him in such a short time span.
  • I also question how frequently Malick employs voice over. He aims to use visuals and audio to show us love, but at times the voice over interferes, telling us too much and not letting us see enough. It’s as if Malick doesn’t trust his visuals to communicate his intent, so has the voice over do the work instead. Much of the time, however, this is counterproductive, as it reduces the power of the visuals or outright eliminates the need for them.
  • The way Malick edits this film, interweaving and repeating shots from different times and places, sometimes makes it difficult to identify a character’s current feeling. This is most often the case in Marina’s story. Most of the time I knew what Malick and Kurylenko are trying to show me. Every now and again, however, the director makes a decision, uses a cut or an odd camera angle or a slightly out of focus shot that made me question Marina’s emotions. From there it takes Malick a few moments to reclaim certainty. Maybe, I suppose, this is deliberate. Maybe Malick does it to show Marina’s indecisiveness, but whether or not that’s the case, it confused me too much to be effective.
  • To wit, I’m not certain as to whether or not Neil sexually or physically abuses Marina in this film. Through most of the movie, there is no reason to think he has, but two extended shots make me question it.
  • In the end, To the Wonder is visually interesting, strikingly beautiful, and almost unique (using the literal definition of that adjective), but it is a touch over-directed and thereby flawed. On balance, I like it, but I think it could have been better.
  • Final Grade: C+

8 thoughts on “To the Wonder

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    • Thank you so much for the kind words. You are most welcome to stop by any time you like. 🙂

      And am I an expert? No. More a layman with just enough knowledge to know precisely how little I know.

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