To the Wonder
Opens Fri., April 12 at Egyptian. Rated R. 113 minutes.
Though booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder is hardly awful. It’s minor Malick, a movie that plays like something cut from his grand 2011 The Tree of Life—scraps, but worthwhile scraps. To the Wonder is essentially a love triangle, a very slow love triangle, among Neil (Ben Affleck), an Oklahoma environmental engineer, and two women. Neil’s job is to measure the damage man does to God’s creation, and the most eloquent scenes consist of him trudging through toxic mud and slag heaps, monitoring groundwater contamination, and talking to alarmed locals about pollution in their poor neighborhoods. In the background we see the prairie being scraped and prepared for more ugly suburbs—so hateful to Malick, that poet of the grass.
At first I thought this was another anti-fracking movie, though it begins with Neil’s vacation in France. There he meets single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a lively Parisian with a 10-year-old daughter. Marina and Neil wander ecstatically around Mont Saint-Michel, that soaring medieval monastery ringed by tide flats, jumping on wet sand that undulates like a trampoline, marveling at the mud-cupped incoming waters. It’s achingly beautiful, one of a few priceless Malick images in the film (photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki). Climbing the stairs to a cloistered garden is to ascend “to the wonder,” Marina muses in voiceover.
Back in Oklahoma, however, the wonder disappears from their new romance. The two quarrel, and Neil turns to his high-school sweetheart, Jane (Rachel McAdams). In the dreamy, elliptical scheme of To the Wonder, the exact sequence of falling in and out of love doesn’t really matter. It’s the pauses amid the relentless rush of time that count for Malick, as when Neil and Jane visit a buffalo herd at sunset. They’re awed, as are we, to feel the woolly presence of lost history, the prairie’s ancient ambassadors, the pinnacle of a prehuman tree of life (rather like the dinosaurs in Tree of Life).
And yet nothing much happens in To the Wonder. All Malick’s signatures are there (fingers in the grass, hushed spiritual whispers, sun flares, etc.), but the stakes feel smaller than Tree of Life’s family tragedy and final God-blessed reunion. Neil is just a guy who can’t commit to love, not unlike Father Quintana (Javier Bardem, in a thankless, poorly integrated role), the local priest who can’t find his faith anymore. “Show us how to seek You,” he implores. We’ve heard it before, and recently, in Tree of Life. To the Wonder ultimately feels like a catch-up project from a man suddenly worried about meeting his earthly quota before climbing to the wonder himself.