Review by Jerry Roberts.
If you know Terrence Malick’s work, then you pretty much know what you’re walking into when you attend his movies. His films don’t look, walk, talk or even sing like anyone else’s. He is a cinema artist whose work is quiet, poetic and breaks away from the standard narrative, cutting down just enough plot and dialogue so they don’t seem intrusive. With this stylistic approach, he is at work in a sea of mostly cookie-cutters. Other directors tread safe waters of action and romance while Malick is satisfied to let our expectations wade just a bit. We become lost in his tapstry of images. If you’re willing to give yourself to his lyrical canvas, you find his work engrossing. If not, you’ll find it frustrating and boring. It is strictly up to you.
“To the Wonder,” his latest film, is an engaging cinematic poem that explores the mysterious chasms of the human heart. Wherein his last film “The Tree of Life” contrasted the evolution of the universe with his memories of growing up in Texas, this one tries to encompass the evolution of a relationship from courting, to settling in, to marriage, and eventually to its breakdown; all told with stunning images and a winsome soundtrack. What dialogue exists is heard in passing. We hear only what we need to hear, the visual canvas tells the story.
There isn’t a lot that we need to be told in “To the Wonder” because, having experienced the rise and fall of relationships in our own lives, we recognize the situation. We meet Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), lovers who are spending time in Paris. He’s an Oklahoman; she’s a single mother from the Ukraine. We catch up with them after they have already fallen deeply in love in Paris at the pre-historic island of Mont Saint-Michel. Neil brings Marina home with him to Oklahoma, to an area where he works, overseeing the construction of a Southwestern suburb – moving from an ancient European preserve to the modern Middle-American world of rapid reconstruction (she is a stranger in a strange land). The sparseness of the dialogue symbolizes the lack of communication between them.
They settle into a life together, but then real life comes calling. They can’t marry by sacrament of the Catholic church (she has an issue concerning a former marriage), among other normal everyday problems that occur in a relationship. What happens in their union is not surprising given what we know of them. They argue, they make mistakes, they reunite, they break-up, they make-up. They love each other from the depth of their being and their reaction to one another startles us. There is a moment when he becomes angry with her leaving her stranded by the side of the road, but what he does next is surprising. You don’t see it in other films.
What is surprising is the way in which their story is told. Malick breaks away from the phony, Hallmark version of romance that is obtrusive in most Hollywood romances by telling us just enough about these people to allow us to care deeply about them. Ben Affleck, who has reinvented himself as a director and a much more focused actor, uses his screen-presence to great effect. He is the masculine part of this equation. Olga Kurylenko (seen this month in the Tom Cruise adventure “Oblivion”) is an extraordinarily beautiful Ukranian actress, possessing a face and an essence that Vermeer might have captured on canvas. We’re less familiar with her than we are with Affleck, and that make her much more of a mystery to us.
Their story is compelling, but it is only part of a larger canvas. Another story happening around them focuses on a Spanish priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who has come to Oklahoma, making him another stranger in a strange land. His eyes tell us everything that we need to know. He is a servant of God, devoted to his work but whose heart is feeling the pangs of emptiness. All around him are people in joy and pain. He officiates a wedding, later he visits inmates at a prison. He visits the sick and the elderly, but there is doubt in his eyes. He wonders about his placement in God’s service, has he given himself to the cloth at the expense of a joyful life?
There is also the suspicion that he is feeling confined by his vows. He can officiate, and comfort but as a priest he is unable to have a life of his own. He sees lovers getting married but he knows that he can never experience this. Bardem, in his best work, is an actor who can speak volumes without speaking a word. It’s all there in his face. In mainstream films, he plays villains as in “Skyfall” or his Oscar-winning performance in “No Country for Old Men”, but this role proves that he can also be quietly and powerfully introspective.
Malick’s films are not for everyone. There has been a mixed reaction to this film from critics who charge that he has made a film of empty images. You might agree or disagree depending on your point of view. This is not a popcorn movie by any stretch of the imagination. It is a work of art, a symphony of images with very few words. It is one of those movies that, on the surface seems baffling and incomprehensible, but the deeper we look the more it reveals.