With The Tree of Life (2011), filmmaker Terrence Malick not only fully embraced non-linear storytelling but also made a semi-autobiographical film as it was partially inspired by his experiences growing up in Central Texas. The famously secretive filmmaker followed this film with To the Wonder (2012), which is loosely based on his second marriage to a Parisian whom he met in France during a lengthy self-imposed exile from filmmaking. She had a young daughter and soon the three of them moved to Austin, Texas. She tried to adapt to her new surroundings while he would leave them for long periods of time without explanation. This film uses these scant known autobiographical details as a loose structure for Malick to push the style he utilized so brilliantly in The Tree of Life to further extremes.
We meet the happy couple frolicking in Paris and very much in love. Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American traveling through Europe and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is a Ukrainian divorcee with a ten-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline). Malick’s restless camera hovers close to the lovers conveying a believable intimacy between them while also marveling at the world around them – most impressively Mont St. Michel, the island abbey located off the coast of Normandy. It is a breathtaking combination of ancient architecture and expansive vistas of a beach at low tide that seems to go on forever.
At times it feels like we are intruding on these people’s most personal moments and privy to their innermost thoughts thanks to Marina’s voiceover musings. She shares her feelings for Neil: “I’ll go wherever you go,” and what she tells him: “If I left you because you didn’t want to marry me, it would mean I didn’t love you. I don’t expect anything. Just to go a little of our way together.” It is a refreshingly honest and candid expression of her feelings for him.
The couple is soon relocated to his hometown in Oklahoma and Malick manages to find visual splendor in suburbia. Olga Kurylenko is a revelation in these early scenes. Not only does Malick’s camera love her but she acts naturally in his very intimate and Expressionistic style. She also does a great job conveying Marina’s emotional fearlessness – a willingness to be honest with her feelings towards the man she loves. Marina is the kind of beautiful free spirit Malick loves to populate his films, from the childlike Holly in Badlands (1973) to Abby in Days of Heaven (1978).
Initially, Ben Affleck seems like an odd choice to star in a Malick film as his mannered style of acting would seem at odds with the filmmaker’s loose, improvisational approach. Early on, in the Europe scenes the actor comes off as a little stiff but there is definitely chemistry between him and Kurylenko, which only deepens when they go stateside. As the film progresses and Neil becomes more distant from Marina, it makes more sense why Malick cast Affleck. Like the equally mannered Richard Gere in Days of Heaven, Affleck portrays a man unable to fully embrace the little moments in life that most of us take for granted but that populate Malick’s films. Affleck is excellent at playing controlled, emotionally detached characters and so when Neil begins freezing Marina out, the actor is at his finest.
Javier Bardem appears as a Catholic priest struggling with his faith. Malick depicts him as a somber, solitary figure and this is conveyed in the poignant visual of the actor walking down a deserted tree-lined street with leaves strewn on the ground. This understated image tells us so much about the character and is further reinforced by his voiceover thoughts. Even when walking among the happy attendees of a wedding ceremony he just presided over, he looks lonely, unable to connect with anyone except on a surface level. He confesses, via voiceover, that he’s going through the motions.
Eventually, Neil and Marina drift apart and she and her child return to Europe. Some time passes and he reconnects with a childhood friend named Jane (Rachel McAdams) who is coming off a failed relationship of her own. They fall in love, sharing a similar temperament. As he did with Neil and Marina’s courtship, Malick captures the intimacy of Neil and Jane’s embryonic love affair, but he doesn’t forget Marina, checking in to see how the fallout of her relationship with Neil has affected her. Not surprisingly, she is still haunted by him.
Known mostly for mainstream Hollywood films like Mean Girls (2004) and Sherlock Holmes (2009), it is interesting to see Rachel McAdams cast in such an overtly artsy film like To the Wonder. She’s well-cast as an earthy woman trying to keep her horse ranch. Her character is a striking contrast to the more ethereal Marina. McAdams is a good fit for Malick’s cinematic world.
Malick takes more artistic risks than any other living American filmmaker, following his own unique thematic preoccupations and repeating visual motifs to the point of coming the closest to self-parody with To the Wonder than ever before, but his actors buy into his cinematic vision so completely that their commitment to it helps legitimize what he’s trying to do.
This film is an incredible exploration into the nature of relationships as Malick wrestles with the notion of how one can fail while another thrives. Why is that? Is it timing? Chemistry? To the Wonder seems to suggest that there is also a certain alchemy, an unquantifiable element that draws people to one another and also keeps them together. Some people can make it work and some can’t for any number of reasons. Relationships take hard work and Malick understands that and conveys it better than most filmmakers. It’s almost cliché to say that To the Wonder isn’t for everyone and at this point in his career it looks like Malick isn’t going to change his approach to storytelling any time soon. He is more interested in making cinematic tone poems rather than traditional linear narratives and it’s great to see someone putting themselves out there like he does with every film.