A beautifully shot film can hide a wide host of cinematic flaws; poor storytelling, under-developed characters, crushingly unsatisfactory conclusions are much more easily forgiven when a movie is breathtaking to behold. That’s why I found myself enjoying To The Wonder in spite of its weaknesses, from a stark lack of dialogue to a tenuous story line.
The general gist of the film isn’t easy to miss, but the subtleties of its characters’ lives deserved more exploration. Opening on the streets of Paris, the alluring Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully gallivants around the city of romance with her lover Neil (Ben Affleck) and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chilene). They move to Oklahoma, when Marina and her daughter quickly grow unhappy. When the two predictably return to France, leaving Neil in the states by himself, he encounters an old love in Jane (Rachel McAdams). The tug of these two women in Neil’s life is explored through director Terrence Malick’s film that relies far more upon striking visuals and poetic voice-overs than standard dialogue. Javier Bardem, so skilled in physically transforming himself with such effortlessness, also stars as an Oklahoman preacher whose story feels out of place, skimpy, and poorly integrated with the rest of the film.
I adore Rachel McAdams but frankly I found the Kuryleno story line much more interesting. Even so, the grit of both relationships remains largely undeveloped. Marina and Neil are remarkably affectionate in the opening Parisian sequence and their passionate bond grows more tortured with time. But all throughout, we have little understanding as to what draws the two together in a specific way. When Neil and Jane reconnect, we similarly grasp very few reasons as to why they ever were or ever should be a couple, apart from the wonderfully orchestrated scenes of the two spending time together in the Oklahoma countryside. It is plain to see that Tatiana desperately misses home upon locating to Oklahoma, her ten-year-old motivations luckily much more accessible than those of the adults in the film.
I can’t fault the actors, but there is something to be desired in the way Malick explores the adult intimacies in To The Wonder. Still, he is able to pull it off because each relationship is unveiled with the same simplicity; neither love story feels underdeveloped in comparison to the other. This stylistic choice provides viewers with a minimal understanding so that we can follow the universal love triangle plot, endearing us to each character primarily through movement, composition, and imagery rather than more traditional means such as dialogue, action, and character development. But as an examination of love, maybe a film doesn’t necessarily require too much of the later.
The visuals are plain stunning and for this, Malick’s film is worth two hours of your time. From the romantically rain-drenched Parisian streets to a rainbow of North American sunsets, endless miles of vibrant red Oklahoma prairie, and brilliantly captured moments of intimacy between lovers, Terrence Malick creates a compelling dichotomy between style and subject. Gorgeous if not standardly idyllic photographic images from each setting are captured by sweeping cameras that just can’t seem to sit still. It is plainly obvious that Malick’s vision is well, if not perfectly, executed in To The Wonder, a fact which merits admiration and respect, independent of whether a filmmaker’s vision is one to which I am personally drawn.
Among fans of Terrence Malick, To The Wonder will easily win favor. Though I’m still undecided as to where I fall on the Malick fandom scale, this movie captured me with its visuals, the stunning imagery allowing me to excuse some of the film’s weaker points as intriguing artistic choices.