To the Wonder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”)
Written by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”)
In the quickest follow-up to a film in his 30 year career, director/writer Terrence Malick delivers “To the Wonder,” a drama so polarizing it earned a series of boos and cheers when it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last September. “To the Wonder” comes after Malick’s Oscar-nominated – albeit still as dividing – “Tree of Life” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. While it might be considered a companion piece to “Tree,” “Wonder” is less experimental and far less emotionally gratifying than its predecessor. In fact, of the six films Malick has directed since 1973’s “Badlands,” it’s the only one I cannot recommend.
As with every Malick film, viewers can insert their own personal meaning behind the thinly-plotted “Wonder.” Ben Affleck stars as Neil, a man who falls in love with single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France and brings her and her daughter back to Oklahoma to start a new life together. When things don’t work out (it’s not evident why they don’t since all Affleck does is stare into the distance for most of the film), Marina moves back to France and Neil rekindles a romance with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend who is now a rancher. When that relationship ends, Marina comes back. Plotted sloppily between the love triangle is a secondary storyline about a priest (Javier Bardem) who has lost his faith. In perfect Malick form, he walks around aimlessly trying to find it.
For a majority of the film’s 112-minute run time (a short film for Malick’s standards), not much happens. Affleck has tickle-fights with Kurylenko and McAdams on beautiful backdrops as Wagner, Hayden and Rachmaninoff music blend with sparse, meaningless dialogue. There is also verbose narration in French and Spanish that tries hard to be poetic, but proves ineffective. Malick shoots Kurylenko and McAdams like a father who is chasing his twirling toddlers with a video camera he just got for Christmas. It was probably great footage in his mind, but no one else is going to want to see it.
Of course, you can’t dismiss the beauty of “Wonder” with Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Tree of Life,” “The New World”) at the helm again. Here, he makes a field of grain and a parking lot at a Sonic Drive-Thru restaurant look immaculate. Still, “Wonder” is exactly why Malick detractors don’t give him a fair shake. And this time they’re right. The imagery is incredible, but it’s a pretentious mess. With three more projects already in the canon for the next two years (“Knight of Cups,” “Voyage of Time,” and an untitled piece), here’s to hoping Malick’s sudden craving for rapid filmmaking isn’t his downfall.