To the Wonder feels like Terrence Malick’s slightest, most personal film, being as it is the story of a couple negotiating the passions and whims of their relationship. Yet, this being Malick, it’s actually so much more, as the couple’s search for lasting love becomes an obvious metaphor for the pursuit of relationship with God.
Whether you find this fascinating or bludgeoning will likely depend on both your patience for Malick’s meandering method and your own religious beliefs. To the Wonder is certainly Malick’s most directly Christian film – even more so than his masterwork, The Tree of Life. To me, this forthrightness comes as a relief. Instead of tiptoeing around questions of faith with exhausting, esoteric voiceovers, here Malick gets to the point (albeit mostly via voiceover). When he follows scenes of the lovers (Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck) becoming disaffected with the murmurings of a local priest (Javier Bardem) who no longer feels close to God, things are pretty clear.
Often, they’re just plain pretty. Kurylenko’s Marina hails from France, where she first meets Affleck’s Neil, an American. The opening section of the film follows the pair’s love-struck dalliances across the country, including a trip to the cathedral on the tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel. At one point Marina lightly tiptoes over the shallows as the tide trickles in behind her, and Malick – working again with Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – makes the water look like a living thing, a pursuing being. Marina giggles like a child, but you wonder if she isn’t also trying to outrun the boredom and familiarity that threaten any romantic relationship.
We never quite get the what and why of Marina and Neil’s relationship, but we don’t need it. The movie gives us the tremors of their hearts.
These European reveries are later juxtaposed with life in middle America, where Marina – along with her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) – moves in order to live with Neil. She describes her new country as “calm” and “honest,” and Malick’s camera honors that perspective. At the same time, he acknowledges that this is a place of ugly power lines and asphalt roofs, one that eschews Haydn and Wagner (both featured on the soundtrack) for the blare of a high-school marching band. Neil works as an environmental inspector, testing the water and soil at various developments, and the scenes of him on the job capture the polluted underbelly of American progress, as well as one of Malick’s favorite themes: the pillaging of nature.
Inner despoiling is what To the Wonder mostly charts, however, especially as Marina and Neil drift apart. At one point she returns to France, leaving Neil to take up with a former flame, played by Rachel McAdams. The movie sags a bit here, not only because the pair strike one too many J. Crew postures (Malick at his worst), but because McAdams is clearly uncomfortable working in front of the director’s lingering camera. She seems aware of it, trying to look past or around it, when the best performances in a Malick film come from those who don’t distinguish between his camera and a field of grass.
He has just those sorts of actors in Kurylenko and Affleck, who are so lost in each other that they make you forget Malick’s camera exists. We never quite get the what and why of Marina and Neil’s relationship, but we don’t need it. The movie gives us the tremors of their hearts. The two are opposites in many ways. Marina is thin and delicate, while Neil is solid and thick. She dances and spins; he’s largely immobile. I was skeptical of the casting of Affleck, but his stolidity and silence are perfect here. Neil is one of those nondescript men who get referred to as a “good guy,” mostly because he seems inoffensive and you don’t know what else to say about him. Emphasizing that quality, Affleck makes Neil an iconic, American everyman and a rooted counter to Kurylenko’s restless spirit.
The movie hardly needs anything more than these two, and you could argue that the other major thread – Bardem’s priest, who oversees the parish in which Neil and Marina live – isn’t necessary. Yet as heavy-handed as his presence is, we also get some wonderful moments with him, as when an aging parishioner tells him she’s praying he’ll receive the “gift of joy.” Later, a janitor cleaning the church’s stained glass puts his hand on a window and tells the priest, “You got to feel the warmth of the light. That’s spiritual.”
The priest can’t feel it. What once was warm, vibrant and true is now gone. Like the sorrowful man of the cloth in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Bardem’s character longs for connection with God. “Everywhere you’re present,” he says in voiceover. “Yet I can’t see you.” Earlier Marina wonders, “What is this love that loves us? That comes from nowhere? From all around?” If To the Wonder is Malick’s most personal film, it’s also his most tragic, as this is a movie about seeking a love – both earthly and divine – that isn’t found.