Terrence Malick beauty wrapped around an admittedly maddening love story. To the Wonder is a strange one by the mercurial director, and it’s apparent he’s not even making it for the sake of receiving mass critical love. Malick is making it for the few high-brow loyalists that are out there. For a few minutes, I wondered if Malick was keenly aware how abnormally quiet Neil (Ben Affleck) is in his movie, until I realized that was part of the strategy. Neil has the power and intelligence to talk, he just refuses to do so – I think he does it to keep his women submissive. Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is the French woman with child he meets abroad and persuades her to relocate to Oklahoma with no promise of commitment. Jane (Rachel McAdams) is the farm gal whom Neil also romances in the story, but she has a more acute intuition of Neil’s narcissism than Marina has.
Even those who regard Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as one of cinema’s finest might find themselves shaking their heads here at this detached and withdrawn film. There is romantic fanciness by Malick, with trademark frolics in the grass, barefoot walks on the beach, tumbling in a field of haystacks and kissing against the horizon. Enough of those measures keep “To the Wonder” as a bona fide Malick work – beautiful, meditative, stunning.
You also have to be the kind of moviegoer that can accept you might be checked out for ten minutes, or simply in your own ponderous self-reflection before you check back-in. There can be quite a few consecutive minutes where nothing “new” to the story is happening.
There is, of course, the mounting frustration of Marina and her daughter. Let’s study Marina and the actress Olga Kurylenko who plays her. If you’re a hormonal man, you might find great classical beauty with Kurylenko. Most moviegoers know her as the rough-and-tumble Bond girl in “Quantam of Solace.” But in the art house film that is “To the Wonder” we get a natural, idyllic beauty that stands outside normal movie convention. Kurylenko is playing a woman blessed with health and beauty, someone who moves freely through this Earth without hardship or economic insecurity, is an effervescent spirit. That is until living with Neil is itself a hardship. But please note the difference between a beautiful woman in an art film (I could freely spend a year analyzing Kurylenko here) and a commercial film (think Olivia Wilde, for instance, who is “beautiful” but speaks coarsely).
Let me explain the hardship. Neil is never quite satisfied. He shares nothing, and says nothing about it. Our first clue is when he is checking out a blonde at a local swimming pool. He likes the buttocks of this strange blonde. Marina notices. And, of course, Neil is too content – less playful, less attuned. And obviously has inconvenienced Marina by making her move to America, and yet says nothing about it. The green card expires, and he doesn’t even have the courtesy to see Marina and her daughter to the airport.
This is a pained love story, similar to “Breaking the Waves” in its depiction of self-afflicted damage. It’s also a unique film because of the obstinate quietness of Affleck’s taciturn and uncommunicative joe (it’s a tricky performance that I give credit to Affleck for pulling off shrewdly). Women like Marina crave attention, alas, deserve attention. And she must do something rash in order to elicit some response out of Neil. She makes the kind of miscalculation that leads to her own tarnishing of human spirit and soul.
“To the Wonder” arrives at high drama, but patience is required getting there. I also was baffled by Javier Bardem’s participation playing a priest in the film who just kind of goes around town attempting to fix broken lives. But I ultimately saw a contrast: the helpless people whom against all odds find solace, and the beautiful people who could have everything but with lack of gratitude succumb to self-destruction.
113 Minutes. Rated R.
ROMANTIC TEARJERKER / CEREBRAL / NIGHTTIME TRANCE-OUT