After seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life twice in theaters, I distinctly remember leaving the theater feeling as if I was the only one who felt its impact. Despite the film’s grandiose narrative and obtuse symbolism, I was irrevocably in tune with Malick’s vision. For two plus hours Malick tapped into my soul and projected a piece of my life, showing every damning question that continuously burrows in my mind, while revealing every aching beauty the world provides us. For most people, especially a collection of my friends, The Tree of Life was an aimless experience featuring gorgeous visuals and elliptical musings. So goes the reception for a Terrence Malick film, where his films are essentially cinematic Rorschach tests. One man’s Thin Red Line is another’s pointless blob of black ink. Needless to say, it’s a continuous battle with Malick’s films as a person like myself loves and hates the auteur from moment to moment, film to film. With his latest release, To the Wonder, I’ve soured on Malick as a director.
The premise for To the Wonder is simple enough. Neil (Ben Affleck) develops a relationship with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris, France. While there, Neil and Marina fall deeply in love, which Malick asserts by showing the two lovers playfully prancing around French monuments and wonders. Soon, Marina and her daughter follow Neil back to the United States, where they stake their claim as a family in Oklahoma. Marina substitutes her grand European life for a slow, unassuming life in America’s south. Unfortunately, the change in atmosphere, coupled with Marina’s daughter feeling displaced, forces the international romance to disintegrate. Marina travels back to France and Neil resurrects a romance from years past with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a recent divorcee. Neil, who never seems committed to much, suddenly finds himself caught between choosing Jane or Marina, with the latter desperately seeking a way back to America after feeling devoid of life in her home country. Running parallel to the romantic struggles developing between Neil and Marina is the story of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a man of the cloth that feels disconnected from God. These two threads bump into each other from time to time, but ultimately they’re pensive reflections of love and connection, with each one coming off as disappointing and emotionally vague. A story about the depth of love ends up being an arduous bore.
My disdain for To the Wonder isn’t because its narrative doesn’t conform to film conventions. After all, I fell in love with The Tree of Life despite its many narrative detours. Rather, my disdain for the film emanates from Malick’s disinterest in actually connecting us to the characters. Outside of a handful of scenes, we’re never truly given an opportunity to understand their struggle, nor are we given an opportunity to even care. In place of acting and dialog, Malick presents muted personas that are seemingly ripped from a perfume commercial. They’re shot in flattering ways, but they can’t hold our attention for any longer than thirty seconds at a time. They are merely malnourished characters with little meat on their bones. The only characterizations Malick provides his characters are minimal and insulting. Unless of course you think a character constantly placing his hands in his pockets or a woman incessantly prancing around a field are worthwhile characterizations. And I can’t really blame the actors for their lack of depth because they’re given nothing to work with. Seriously, it’s hard to comment on an actor’s performance when their biggest assignment is gazing off into the distance, looking as bored and uninvolved as we feel.
Instead of feeling the weight of our protagonist’s crumbling relationship through acting and interaction, we’re left with opaque visions and a deep emotional distance from the material at hand. Malick seems to think that shots of a setting sun on a worn down Oklahoma fence serves us better than actually watching our characters interact with one another. Because of this we’re forced to choke down shallow images and voice overs that equate to useless whispers. And this is why at times To the Wonder feels like a Malick parody: Malick delivers everything with great significance (the sweeping cameras, gorgeous nature shots and quietly poetic voice overs), but ultimately nothing resonates. Perhaps To the Wonder will open up on repeat viewings, and I’m sure there is a collection of people who have fallen in love with it, but an unreachable distance kept this viewer from discerning between a beautiful meditation on love and a pointless pool of black ink displaced over a white sheet of paper.