Love. It’s at the center of Terrence Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, and despite humanity being around for thousands of years, it is something that humanity has never found a clean answer to. So obviously this film is Malick’s messiest film to date. Yet that doesn’t mean there is nothing to glean from this film. Far from it in fact as Malick adds more to his seemingly endless amount of questions about humanity and its role in the universe in an engaging tale of heartache.
To the Wonder follows a European woman (Olga Kurylenko fitting in perfectly as the graceful woman Malick-ian archetype), who falls in love with an American man (a miscast Ben Affleck in a tough role that demands a lot of use of his body and facial expressions to create the character instead of dialogue). They elope on Mont St. Michael, an old religious complex built alongside the beach, and it quickly becomes Malick’s physical interpretation of heavenly bliss. The European woman moves to Oklahoma where she meets a European priest (Javier Bardem in an underwritten and underutilized role) who is now living there as well. In classic Malick fashion, discussions about faith, commitment, love and nature follow as the relationship between the European woman and the American man falls apart.
Terrence Malick goes for broke with what he is trying to do with this film. While Malick isn’t as successful with mixing the cosmic with the intimate here as he was with his previous film, The Tree of Life, this certainly is as ambitious as that masterpiece. I don’t think anyone has ever attempted to discover the true definition of love, but Malick tries to do just that here. While it does take a while to get to the bottom of this (including a seemingly unnecessary subplot involving Rachel McAdams as an old flame of Ben Affleck’s character), Malick does find something interesting. The physical aspects of relationships (the wedding rings or even the warmth of someone else’s body along side yours) don’t have a thing to do with love. In Malick’s eyes love is emotional commitment, and if you stay committed emotionally, you will always get something from that relationship no matter the trials it endures.
Malick is less successful with his attempts to relate love to the world of God. With a character in Javier Bardem’s priest that is hardly developed (far less than Ben Affleck’s lover, who only has a handful of lines of dialogue), the ramblings about needing to find God are a bit difficult to sit through. Yet I still think Malick is ultimately able to connect love and being in a higher place with a strong final voiceover from Bardem and a powerful visual motif in the form of Mont St. Michael (gorgeously photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki).
Considering what Malick tries to attempt with this film, it is understandable that he sets up the film with so many clichés from his other films. The graceful woman, the violent and conflicted man, the seemingly random but gorgeous imagery, the hushed voiceovers are all clichés of Malick films that have caused this film to be accused of self-parody. While certainly not a perfect film, these claims of self-parody take away from the fact that all of these elements are in service of a film that is trying to do something original and complex, and the answers certainly are worth it for those who go with the flow.