By the standards of acclaimed filmmaker Terrance Malick, To the Wonder is a modest achievement. Its ambitions might be slight, but its impact is more than slightly powerful.
Some might find amusement in the recent prolific streak of the notoriously reclusive filmmaker, who made just four films in a 32-year span before 2005, but has completed five films since, including two more still due for release.
At any rate, Malick’s latest film is a muddled but evocative romantic drama about choices and consequences, and how they threaten to tear apart a relationship.
The film opens in France, where American tourist Neil (Ben Affleck) falls deeply in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian divorcee who he later brings to the United States to settle down in Oklahoma.
Amid culture clashes and language barriers, the intention is to get married and raise a family. However, complications ensue when Neil begins seeing an ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), causing Marina to seek comfort with a priest (Javier Bardem) dealing with a crisis of faith.
To the Wonder is deeply spiritual and morally complex examination of relationships and love unrequited that is more optimistic than cynical.
The film’s approach is atmospheric and contemplative, as it conveys ideas more through mood and imagery than dialogue. In fact, the bulk of the lines in the film are part of the heavy-handed narration, which shifts point of view between three of the four characters (something that remains unexplained).
Malick (The Tree of Life) is a visual artist, of course, and here he keeps the camera moving and favors close-ups and exterior montages. He beautifully captures landscapes both big and small, working with frequent collaborators such as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk.
The result emphasizes the quiet details in each scene, as well as the eccentric periphery characters that define small-town Americana. However, the main characters keep a frustrating emotional distance in the process, meaning that while the audience can see their passion, it rarely feels it.
Malick takes the stance of a hopeless romantic with an effort that resembles a side project between his high-concept epics. Yet even when he deals with familiar themes such as lust, infidelity and reconciliation, he does so from a fresh perspective that is far outside the mainstream. These days, that’s practically an achievement in itself.
Rated R, 112 minutes.