The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick pretty much threw off any remaining chains of conventional narrative and storytelling. His art evolved to a place of nearly pure montage, a place where visual poetry (the rhythm of editing, the repetition of imagery, the lighting, the camera movements, and the color) meant more than the actors or the characters or the script. While The Tree of Life wrestled with the weighty topics of love, death, and God, his follow-up, To the Wonder, focuses solely on love -- the subject matter for so much classical poetry -- and solidifies his current style.
Ben Affleck plays Neil, an American who falls in love with a French single mother named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a trip overseas. The couple and her young daughter move to his home in Oklahoma, where Marina adjusts to her new life and befriends a local priest (Javier Bardem) who is struggling with his faith. But their idyllic life starts to fray, and eventually Neil makes contact with an old lover (Rachel McAdams).
While that setup implies a conventional romantic drama, Malick uses this familiar plot as a throughline for a nonstop wash of images and sound that’s devoid of conventional scene structure. For example, though he plays the lead character, we hear Affleck speak primarily in voice-over -- it’s possible we never see him say more than three lines of dialogue in the whole film. His words provide part of the soundtrack for the images that showcase the beginning of his relationship with Marina, the camera spinning and tilting in exuberance -- and occasionally stopping to notice how much more beautiful the world looks when we think we’ve found our soul mate.
This approach to the material is so quintessentially late-period Malick that naysayers will accuse the man of parodying himself. In truth, he’s come up with his purest vision -- and his most streamlined work since Badlands. There is no fat on the movie, just consistent attempts to get viewers to feel joy, pain, guilt, jealousy, and all the other roiling emotions triggered by love. The title is apt, for such strong feelings are a wonder to us, and it’s a wonder that any picture would not just try to, but quite often succeed at, pulling off something so ambitious.
Although it’s hard for actors to stand out in a Malick movie, Bardem is the perfect performer for the visual-minded director’s approach to filmmaking. With the exception of Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s hard to name an actor with as much screen charisma as Bardem, and though his role is certainly small, he gives his haunted priest such sorrowful depth, and such formidable presence, that we never forget that Malick is concerned with types of love far greater than the romantic variety.
For those who find Malick pretentious and dull, there’s nothing in To the Wonder that will dissuade them. But for those who are seduced by his idiosyncratic rhythms, his boundless quest for photographic beauty, and his grand attempts to tackle the core themes of humanity, To the Wonder is a movie to treasure. leave a comment --Perry Seibert