After watching To The Wonder, I must come to the melancholy view that — with nearly four decades of film-making behind him — this is Terrence Malick’s first film without some argument for greatness. Yes, Badlands was not especially deep, and Tree Of Life had a number of abysmal and overwrought moments, but these films were wonderfully constructed, even if the latter could have used some pruning. That said, To The Wonder is not the near-masterpiece Roger Ebert thought it was, nor is it the “meandering,” “incomprehensible” mess others claim. In fact, it’s a good film with a handful of great moments and a lucid narrative, bogged down by some large problems that keep it out of better company.
Before I show what those problems are, however, I’d like to get the primary misconception out of the way. Yes, the film has narrative, even if it’s not rich on plot, for the two are not the same thing. Plot refers to what happens, on the superficial level, as far as simple action is concerned. Narrative integrates action, character, emotion, musings, symbols, sound, image, and pretty much anything else conceivable in film, into a coherent whole. Does the film have this? Well, let’s see. It opens with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) describing love as being newly born and opening one’s eyes. The camera looks blurry and overwhelmed, evoking this very thing. As the voice-over continues, you get Neil (Ben Affleck) in different love scenes with Marina, including a few magnificent shots of the two on a beach, where the water and the sand seem to unify in both color and behavior, furthering the narrative with symbol. Neil is good to Marina’s daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), even as he declines to marry Marina, and is aloof in general. This disconnect becomes especially obvious when the family moves from Paris to Oklahoma, and Tatiana — in another wonderful scene — asks Neil to marry her mother, relating, with typical childishness, what this might look like, as he looks on with shock and discomfort, emotions that are lucidly communicated by mere facial expression and body language. Going further, we see the family playing with each other, which is both well-crafted and realistic, as Marina confesses her own loneliness to a neighbor, while barely even speaking, and ostensibly about her own daughter, at that. Yet the viewer knows she is talking (or rather, emoting) about herself, for it’s visible on her face and her expressions, even as it tries to be “about” something else entirely.
So far, the narrative (and its techniques) is clear, but is complicated by the appearance of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who plays the cliched role of the self-torn priest, yet does it well in a handful of interesting scenes that, unfortunately, have little to add to the rest of the film, including a brief attempt to “catch” the warmth of the light against a stained-glass window. In his own voice-overs, he asks to see and feel Good while exhorting his church-goers (Neil and Marina among them) to love each other simply because they must, as a duty, a philosophical point that repeats throughout. Given Neil’s reticence, however, the relationship turns sour, and Tatiana — in a particularly bad scene — acts the part of all-knowing child, whose instinct tells her mother that “something’s missing” from their lives. The mother and daughter then go back to Paris, and Neil starts a brief relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood acquaintance, that ends for much the same reason: Neil’s difficulty with closeness. No, this is not some pointless detour, as it’s been said, but merely an intensification of the same arc, for we see, now, that Neil’s issues aren’t specific to his relationship with Marina, but go back to himself, as they play out in near-identical terms all over again.
At the same time, we realize that both Jane and Marina have come to Neil demanding happiness, and perhaps this is what turns him off from most human interaction. James Berardinelli — who has one of the better reviews of the film that I’ve read — claims that Neil ends his affair with Jane because he feels “responsible” for Marina’s unhappiness in Paris, but that is far from certain, for both relationships are little more than shadows of each other, with shouting and near-violence in one presaging the same in the other. No matter how you look at it, however, this is good characterization — albeit in a more limited sense, given the lack of ambition within the film — and such things are essential to narrative.
After Tatiana goes off to live with her father, Marina returns, alone, marries Neil, yet is no happier now than before, and their arguments escalate to the point of violence. In one great scene, we see the two of them get married — Marina’s long-desired goal — followed by their coming to stand at opposite ends of the stairway, as if trying to find one another, yet being afraid to, then just as quickly disappearing into their respective destinations. Again: more narrative, and a build-up of character and symbol. At some point, Marina sees a man working outside, and possibly fantasizes over him. In fact, when Marina’s friend, Anna (Romina Mondello), exhorts her to be “free,” that life is but a dream and therefore no mistakes are possible, a series of odd looks come over Marina, and one wonders if she’s thinking of this stranger throughout the speech. Good acting? Narrative? You bet. Meanwhile, Quintana continues to preach and interact with prisoners, who give him merely words you can tell he’s heard before, with many of the voices obscured, even, to the point of irrelevance — another narrative flourish, and a meaningful one, at that.
Finally, Marina is fed up with the lack of love, or whatever it is that she, herself, is lacking, and has an affair with the stranger, confesses to Neil, as Neil — in the last great scene of the film — drives on, yet continues to turn to Marina in disbelief, his mouth agape throughout. The fact that the depiction of cheating and its emotional effects is so realistic and spot-on, yet evoked with barely any words, at all, is a testament to both the direction and Affleck’s often superb acting, in this film and others, despite what has been claimed of his “brooding” and “directionless” looks, here. Ultimately, the two decide upon a divorce, but seemingly relent, as Marina is shown carrying around a baby (the couple’s?), going to the airport as the two say good-bye to each other, then appearing again, in a new location (France?) with Neil. There is a brief shot of a child walking about a yard, who is likely the baby, now several years older. This is all done swiftly, and deftly, with little waste and proper build-up. Is the film rich on plot? No. Yet, it certainly has narrative, and a coherent one, at that, which tells the viewer exactly what’s necessary for the film’s purpose: the internal make-up of the characters, and what, precisely, this will lead to. The fact that there’s a seemingly bad marriage (and its possible revitalization) is incidental to this, and not “the point” of the film, itself.
Of course, that’s only the good. Yet it’s been so misunderstood that a lengthy discussion seems necessary, even as the film — which seems pretty clear, to me — ought to really speak for itself. Much of the time, however, it fails to, and this is where the flaws come in. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is the voice-overs. Literally three-quarters of the narration is merely one cliche after the other, from Marina’s opening on love (“I fell into the flame,” “you brought me back to life”), to her rumination on love lost (“you thought we had forever”), to her final declaration that love can forgive, and the like. Neil’s voice-overs are rare, yet not well-written, either, as they unconvincingly belie his mysteriousness, and Quintana’s are only marginally better. In fact, if one were to cut down the voice-overs to a fifth of their screen time, little would be lost, for the images relate the world sufficiently, and distractions could be elided.
Surprisingly, the screenplay is at its best when dialogue is little more than functional, such as when Neil finds out about Marina’s infidelity, in the middle of a fast-food drive-through, and absent-mindedly dismisses the teller as he needs to collect his thoughts, or when Quintana is with a convict who rambles about nothing, establishing a kind of off-the-cuff poesy reminiscent of Malick’s earliest films. At other times, the dialogue can be downright condescending, such as in a potentially great scene where Quintana looks longingly at a couple he’s just married, ruined by an on-looker’s observation that Quintana is “unhappy.” Well, yes; this is precisely what the images had so well conveyed, and any more explication is redundant, to put it mildly.
The film’s other flaw is its lack of depth, for there’s no great “thing” that it ever seems to drive at. No, it’s certainly not superficial, as the images and acting can be supernal, at times, yet given the nature of the story — love not entirely won, lost, then finally gained — there is a limit to what can and cannot be done, with the tools Malick decides to employ. The voice-overs could have really made the philosophy more complex, yet are wasted with cliches, and thus, you merely see a well-wrought drama that simply does not have much purpose. The best moments, here, are similar in style and theme to the best moments in Malick’s earlier Days Of Heaven, yet the latter film is shorter, has much better narration, and a defter use of both symbol and image, making this film’s narrative — at least by comparison — seem flaccid and self-serving, and when art is merely reflexive, and nothing but, it has limits only it can help. Perhaps this is why Malick decided to use Quintana’s arc as the film’s second element, to pick up the slack the main drama simply cannot hold. Yet Quintana’s sequence is rambling, even if better-written, for it introduces an unnecessary element (God and God’s love) to a rather secular, run-of-the-mill arrangement, thus bloating it to the two-hour mark. Occam’s razor says to snip, yet Malick — not having a great film on his hands — decides to strain.
Yet, for all of that, To The Wonder has enough moments to recommend it. I have not mentioned the scene where Tatiana walks through her new school’s marching-band, creating both a sense of awe for the girl and the feeling that she could face this new world; the early four or five-second shots of Neil “leaving” Marina’s side unexpectedly, in different contexts, presaging what would follow; the enthusiasm both show for each other, yet the odd feeling that Neil’s physicality is somehow a put-on; the couple’s very realistic, almost un-dramatized fighting; Marina’s Skype call with her daughter, where there is a brief shot of a woman (likely her former husband’s new wife) walking in, and the call ending, and the unexplored feelings this must cause in Marina that we’re not shown, yet nonetheless treated to.
No, none of this is probed deeply enough, even at its best, but to call the film anything less than what it is is both a personal failure of appreciation, as well as a critical one that adds to that silly narrative from a couple of years back, where people would leave movie theaters, aghast and misunderstanding, when the thing was so plainly there. In Tree Of Life, one merely had to look up. Here, it is all eye-level. You must simply keep them open.
[Another version of this article first appeared on BlogCritics, on 9/9/2013.]
[Dan Schneider wrote his own review of To The Wonder, here, arguing against some of the viewpoints I’ve presented.]