Mark Reviews Movies

To the Wonder


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline, Romina Mondello

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 4/12/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 11, 2013

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is about love and forgiveness, or perhaps it's better to say that it's about Love and Forgiveness. We always suspect that Malick's screenplays are littered with capital-letter concepts (In fact, it's a little surprising to see a priest addressing a lower-case "you," although it might be intentional, given that said priest spends the large majority of his time in the film in doubt of a higher power), and this film is no exception.

Central to To the Wonder, though, is the dichotomy of ideas—the higher and the lower (Perhaps those should be capitalized, too). In the screenplay's narration, a woman philosophically ponders about love, and a priest speaks in spiritual terms about Love. Characters consider Humanity's relationship with Nature and its responsibility to itself, while Malick's images show us human beings interacting with nature and each other. Like much of Malick's work, the juxtaposition of words and imagery points to a battle between two worlds—the real one and an unknowable eternal one—and to his characters' attempts to exist in the former realm while struggling to comprehend the latter.

What's fascinating about Malick as a filmmaker—and why there are always rewards to be had in his work—is that, even though we may have heard similar thematic refrains and seen the same visual motifs (This film uses footage from The Tree of Life, and there is yet again the sight of someone offering a passing caress to plants as she walks through a field) before in his films, those words and sights feel new each time. Part of it is his keen eye for the various marvels of nature and the romantic appeal of ordinary life (captured with the aid of Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous cinematography), but more importantly, it is his ability to contextualize what we see and what we hear in terms of the story at hand. The familiarity—that rhythm of visual majesty and hypnotic voice-over—has become comforting, making it easier for us reflect on those Big Ideas.

The story, a contemporary tale of troubled love, is a simple one. While vacationing in France, Neil (Ben Affleck) has met Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and the two have started a romantic relationship. There's hesitation in dubbing it love. It is clear that Marina has fallen in love with Neil (Are their names ever actually spoken in the film?); it's not as easy to define Neil's emotions.

Surely, he has affection for Marina and Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), her daughter from a previous and, at least in the eyes of the church, still official marriage. It seems, though, that he is experiencing this relationship as a reaction to Marina's feelings for him. The two share tender kisses and warm embraces as they travel by train and by car throughout the country (to an old castle where their forms are framed by architecture and the expanse of the sea, to a beach where the ground bounces like rubber, etc.), and from Marina's rhapsodic expression of her passion as the first of the film's assorted narrators, we assume it's mutual.

Such are the dangers of assumptions (not only on our part but also on Marina's), and when Neil invites Marina and Tatiana to live with him in the small town in Oklahoma he calls home (vast fields sparsely interrupted by signs of civilization), the usually quiet man briefly becomes our narrator. From his words and actions (We only occasionally see him at work as an inspector for an oil company—a role in which he routinely sees and hears the damage his company has caused to the environment and local populations—but there's a sense that it is an ever-present force guiding his life), it becomes apparent he is simply going through the motions.

Neil and Marina begin fighting with regularity; Tatiana becomes distant to this man she once wanted to be able to call her stepfather. Marina's visa is about to expire, and he simply does not ask her to stay.

Neil's behavior is easy enough to understand; he is afraid of commitment. With Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman from the same town he knew when he was much younger, Neil goes through motions similar to those he goes through with Marina. They begin a romance (We again must question whether it's a one-sided affair), and eventually, Neil pushes her away (in part because of accepting Marina back into his life after she falls upon hard times, which makes us wonder if Jane is simply a means to solidify his passive dismissal of Marina). Whatever reason he might have for his fear is none of Malick's concern; it is simply a fact of Neil's character. The true focus is Marina's torment in suffering unrequited love.

There's purpose here that reaches far beyond the psychological shortcomings and emotional frailties of the film's characters, and the key to unlocking that purpose lies in a seemingly superfluous character. He is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the pastor of the local parish who sporadically appears to care for the poor and sick in the area or to offer a sermon or advice (A homily he gives about the necessity of choice seems aimed directly at Neil). Through his narration, we learn of a man of faith who no longer feels the presence of a higher power.

It's that Doubt and the doubts of Neil and Marina (A betrayal late in the story makes us reconsider everything we thought we knew about Neil; perhaps it's not that he is incapable of love but that he loves in his own way) that ultimately tie the film together. While it's scattershot in its approach—and its success is of a similar quality—To the Wonder is still an accomplishment—perceptive, haunting, and hopeful.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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