TIFF 2012: Terrence Malick's 'To the Wonder' Wonders About Love
by Alex Billington
September 11, 2012
Oh Terrence Malick, what are you up to? Your films are always beautiful, but they just wander. Following up The Tree of Life last year, legendarily reclusive director Terrence Malick has delivered his next film, To the Wonder, starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, and for about 15 minutes, the lovely Rachel McAdams. Whereas Tree of Life was a visual portrait about family and childhood, To the Wonder is about love, and the pains of it, and the ebb and flow of it. But it just shows it, it doesn't really say anything about it in the end. Instead, it asks endless questions, to which there's no definitive answers given or even hinted.
The main piece of the story, if there even is one, in To the Wonder is the relationship between Affleck's Neil and Kurylenko's Marina. The two meet in Paris and fall in love, but it's not a straightforward narrative. We see beautifully shot pieces of the story. Eventually Affleck takes her back to his hometown in Oklahoma, and we spend the rest of the film watching every sunset/sunrise in the area while everyone wanders around. It's almost a documentary, like he found this town, filmed for a few weeks, and put together a bunch of footage with some semblance of a story. Or something like that. Rachel McAdams is in it, briefly, as a hometown sweetie that Affleck falls for momentarily. Plus Javier Bardem is in there as a priest. Why? I don't know.
By now we're all familiar with Malick's tricks. The camera never stops moving, like it's flying around all the time. He always shoots at either sunrise or sunset; sunbeams are present somewhere in almost every single shot. But the most redundant part of this film was how everyone just wandered, every single person (even all the background actors) would just be walking around casually, not saying anything, just strolling along. It's obvious Malick doesn't like stillness, at all. Not in the story, not with his actors, not with the camera. But it doesn't mean much. It's a stylistic choice at this point that doesn't help push the story along, unfortunately.
What To the Wonder does do those is bring up questions about love. The kind that all of us think about, in our relationships and our lives. But they're exactly that - the kind of questions we already think about. We're never given any indication of Affleck's motivation or interest in either of the two women (he has about 20 lines of dialogue in the entire film). What is the force of love that drives him? Why would he want to betray her? Why does he keep going back to her? Why does she fall out of love? Why do people cheat on others, even once, knowing how hurtful it is? Why do we cause this pain to ourselves and others if we know it's bad?
Those are the kind of questions To the Wonder asks. Or, I suppose, that Terrence Malick is trying to elicit from the audience. But again, there are no answers. None of these questions are ever addressed, they're just portrayed, with this sweeping story of beautiful landscapes and setting suns and a couple of very attractive people. Maybe it's a film that is meant to be used for us to reflect ourselves in, crafted to make us ask these questions about ourselves. To make us wonder. That may be the case, but even so, there's not much here to run with. Malick's films are becoming just a passive watch. They're pretty, but they're ultimately vacant, even the love triangle story doesn't hint at much beyond the familiar ideas of the biggest challenges of love.
I wish there was more to love about this. It has left me with some interesting thoughts and questions about life/love, but ones where experiences in my own life will give me the answers. I will say that I like this film slightly more than Tree of Life, as I don't believe it was as abstract as that film, but it is just as wandering and undetermined. However, I am still curious to see how Terrence Malick's next few films turn out as well.
Alex's Toronto Rating: 6.5 out of 10