Review: To the Wonder

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To the Wonder

If you're a fan of Terrence Malick, you'll likely be a fan of To the Wonder.

The esteemed filmmaker's latest feature is in every way a Malick film, bearing his unmistakable stamp with its dreamy vibe, spiritual explorations and heavenly visual style. To the Wonder is gorgeous, complex, tragic, sometimes confounding and, like all of Malick's work, definitely not for everyone. I mean this as a compliment.

In To the Wonder's striking opening montage, we're drawn into the white-hot romance between Neil (Ben Affleck), an American traveling in Europe, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian divorcee raising her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) in Paris. After a whirlwind affair, Neil invites Marina and Tatiana to live with him in a place rather unlike Europe -- his native Oklahoma.

As Neil begins a new job as an environmental inspector, Marina does her best to get beyond the obvious culture shock and adapt to her new life in the Spartan oil patch town of Bartlesville. But the relationship soon cools, as passion gives way to arguments and detachment. Lonely and depressed, Marina finds comfort in her friendship with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Catholic priest whose daily encounters with suffering cause him to doubt his own faith.

With her visa about to expire, Marina returns to Paris with Tatiana. Meanwhile, Neil has rekindled an old romance with his childhood friend and former girlfriend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). But when he hears that Marina is broke and suffering, Neil's conscience troubles him enough to consider getting back together with her.

This story is nothing new, but Malick's genius is that he turns a tale that could reek of clichéd cinematic romance into a thing of cinematic beauty. To the Wonder avoids clichés by being completely nonlinear, constantly jumbling the sequence of events so that an unoriginal premise becomes a compelling look at the meaning of love and its relationship to spirituality and nature.

To the Wonder builds its narrative and makes its point by showing us random, disorderly glimpses in its characters' lives, developing them with minimal dialogue. There are snippets of conversation, but the characters speak mostly in voiceovers that express their thoughts and feelings rather than explaining their stories. As in most Malick films, the spoken word is secondary to the visual cue, and we glean most of To the Wonder's meaning -- and learn most of what we need to know about its characters -- from the film's imagery.

And what breathtaking, mesmerizing imagery it is; I'd expect no less from Malick. (You must see To the Wonder in a theater. Your 60-inch TV simply won't do.) From scenes of impassioned lovers on a rocky beach on the French island of Mont St. Michel to images of melancholy loneliness amid the banality of a treeless Oklahoma suburb, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who teamed with Malick on The New World and The Tree of Life) creates a visual language of great depth and clarity. The visual clarity often contrasts with the film's narrative ambiguity; this greatly helps us understand To the Wonder, as enigmatic plot points are wrapped in far more comprehensible images.

To the Wonder draws many parallels between human relationships and humanity's relationship to nature. (Did I mention this is a Malick film?) As Neil neglects his relationship with Marina, his job as an environmental watchdog in oil-rich Oklahoma reminds him of the reckless ways we neglect our environment, harvesting what we need (or think we need) and leaving behind a mess. If Neil doesn't get the connection between the plundered and scarred landscapes he inspects and his own increasingly barren romance, we certainly do. Just as obvious are the parallels between Father Quintana's dwindling faith in God and our reliance on dwindling natural resources.

Assessing the acting in To the Wonder is more difficult than in conventional films, as the characters say relatively little and develop in random bursts of passionate interaction (and again, through powerful visual cues) rather than via story progression. Also, the film has no protagonist as such, devoting equal amounts of emotional energy to Neil, Marina and Father Quintana. Of the three lead performances, Bardem's probably is the strongest, if only because Quintana is the film's most intriguing character and has the most viscerally engaging story. His encounters with miserable poverty, sickness, drug addicts and intellectually disabled people are among the film's most compelling and realistic moments.

Kurylenko also does a fine job as Marina, a refreshingly strong female character. To the Wonder is no conventional take on love, and Marina is no conventional female lead. She's physically stunning (you may recognize Kurylenko as Bond girl Camille in Quantum of Solace), but also stunningly sorrowful and ambivalent.

Strong as it is, To the Wonder isn't perfect. Its nonlinear structure and plot ambiguities can be confusing; at these times, it's best just to soak in the film's deeper implications and not try to make sense of the action. The movie sometimes loses focus when dwelling too long on its elegant, dreamy landscapes and moody interior shots, lustrous as they are. To the Wonder also is a bit redundant in making its points -- yeah, we get the connection between love, nature and spirit after the first hour -- although it makes them beautifully in both the philosophical and visual sense.

But my criticisms aside, To the Wonder is a masterful film. Not Malick's best movie -- I still vote for Badlands -- but arguably his most personal and passionate one. It will enthrall Malick fans, but those not familiar with the great director should give it a try also. Viewers who are open to impressionistic filmmaking and appreciate heartfelt romance will discover a film of great poetry, power and yes, wonder.