Fresh off his enigmatic Oscar nominated The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick hits theatres (and VOD in the USA) with To the Wonder, a character study of sorts – but even I have a hard time calling it a straight “character study”.
The film is a character study in the sense that Malick’s film has a loose story and a small ensemble portraying fictional people written by the complex director, but To the Wonder feels like much more of a human nature retrospective displaying an ongoing search to find true happiness in life.
As he’s been known to do, Malick offers an array of ideas for the moviegoer to grasp onto and build a substantial “story” around. It’s actually funny that To the Wonder and Spring Breakers are both playing in movie theatres at the same time being as the latter is similar to a Malick film dipped in a vat of cocaine and vodka.
The film starts off with a couple, played by Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck, grinning ear to ear and being very flirtatious with one another. Multiple clips show viewers that the two travel and seek out rare destinations such as a tide slowly rolling in around their feet and a peek with a gorgeous view of the quietness around them.
A red flag is raised almost instantaneously. With all of these stunning locations, neither one of them says more than a few words. Affleck doesn’t even speak at all except for to laugh. Wouldn’t someone have eventually said, “isn’t this beautiful?” or “look over there!”?
But, then more of these moments occur with more staring and caressing. As a moviegoer, you catch on that Malick is doing this on purpose to represent something. Eventually, I realized Malick was using these moments of quietness to represent how strong their emotions towards each other are. It’s also a proposed challenge for the actors to try and portray what they’re feeling without using words.
It sounds pretentious, but it’s in fact the opposite and actually quite fascinating and genuine. Breathy narration occurs throughout the film, but instead of explaining everything that’s taking place or to explain motives or feelings, it’s utilized as more of a tool to establish an atmosphere. You can read into the narration as the screenwriter/director trying to be a poet, but it’s clear he’s using these passages to set a bedrock tone for the actors’ performances to stand on.
Affleck eventually asks Kurylenko to come back home with him. Smitten, she agrees and travels to America with her young daughter. However, there’s a shift in attitude and adjustments to be made – more than she and her daughter expected. This serendipitous step into romance is slowly evaporating as she’s slowly losing that spontaneous allure she had in the relationship. Her daughter has to get used to a new school and new American ways in a place that always feels as if it’s in development. As Kurylenko copes with her new surroundings, she tries to find happiness and her way back – wait for it – to the wonder.
Unknowing to her, others around her feel the same emptiness. Maybe not with love, but with a personal connection. Some townsfolk, including Kurylenko, try filling this hole with religion, but the religious leader in this community (a priest played by Javier Bardem) is longing for that face-to-face connection church goers have with him. Something his God – who he wholeheartedly believes in – is having a hard time providing.
The theme of “finding a connection with another” is a frequent theme in movies and helps build character development. Another reason why these scenes of silence are important is because it makes To the Wonder stand on its own as a film that’s unlike anything you’ve seen.
What also makes it original and memorable is how seemingly uplifting it is towards missteps, as these lost individuals try to fill this void. Malick is telling moviegoers that trial and error is inevitable when trying to relocate happiness you once felt. We can learn from these fumbles, but shouldn’t feel bad for taking a chance.
At least, that’s what I took out of my moviegoing experience. Malick is a true definition of an artist. This is a painter showing you his artwork and asking you to decipher what the reds and blues mean. What you take out of the film is ultimately your interpretation and no one can tell you differently. Malick knows what it all means, but he’s never going to tell you.
As for the film as a whole, I thought it improved in areas where I thought The Tree of Life should have. I thought The Tree of Life covered a lot of ground – maybe too much – but with his latest film, the screenwriter/director is able to display dreamy visuals, superb performances, and a constant interest without feeling as if he’s overstaying his welcome.
To the Wonder is an exceptional film made by someone who understands that film is a medium that’s malleable and can be represented in different ways. It’s a pleasure to watch and to allow to wash over you. It’s also less meaty than the The Tree of Life and certainly less ambitious, but then again what isn’t? Perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.