Great films only become “great” by surviving multiple viewings and emerging stronger after each one. The inverse also holds true, which is why rewatching a movie like Avatar, which relies on visual effects more than vision or character, draws diminishing returns. Watch a Terrence Malick film for a second or third time, however, and you will grasp its themes, symbols and, well, point with surprising ease. I did not fall in love with The Tree of Life, Malick’s divisive 2011 opus, until my second viewing, and it took a third to cement it as one of my all-time favorites. Still, the first time I felt something, something special and quite awe-inspiring that I knew would take another go-around to put a finger on. It is the absence of that sinking-stomach feeling and itch to dive right back in that worries me after seeing To the Wonder.
If it’s not already obvious, those unmoved by or even disdainful of Malick’s style should avoid To the Wonder. All the usual Malickian devices — jump cuts, cutaways to nature and philosophical voiceovers — return, and their initial jarring effects take on a sensible, impressionistic logic, if you’re willing to just go with the flow. The majesty of Emmanuel Lubezski’s cinematography and the classical soundtrack (with emphasis, as usual, on Wagner) makes surrendering to the film easy enough, though its experimental approach keeps the core love story — between an American, Neil (Ben Affleck), and a Russian, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) — at arms length. To quote Affleck at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, “To the Wonder makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.”
Cheap Michael Bay comparisons aside, this might as well be Malick’s most confounding film, which is all the more disconcerting because the plot is pretty simple. We meet Marina and Neil at the start, and peak, of their love in Paris. One second, they’re caressing each other on the Pont Alexandre III; the next, they’re gunning a convertible to Mont Saint-Michel. They are moving so fast that reality threatens to “pull [them] down toward the Earth,” as foreshadowed by the quicksand that surprises them along the castle’s shore. After moving to Oklahoma (“The Romance State,” as no one calls it) to live with Neil, Marina and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), despair at how boring and static their lives have become. What follows is a series of betrayals, reunions, farewells, passions, flare-ups and wanderings about the Oklahoma landscape, where Malick and Lubezski find beauty in wheat fields, bison herds and the fracking plants where Neil works.
Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) meanders along a separate subplot for about two-thirds of the film before encountering Marina and Neil on separate occasions. His story is one of sadness and desperation, and Malick affords the Catholic priest a level of intellectual curiosity not seen since the days of Ingmar Bergman. Only terminal patients, drug addicts and criminals seek Quintana’s guidance; the comfortable, fortunate masses live without faith, or adopt it for days or hours at a time. After wedding a young couple, the priest finds not one friend or family member outside his church willing to talk with him about the experience they just shared. If The Tree of Life could be interpreted through a pantheistic lens, then To the Wonder reads more as an ode to Christianity, and its precarious place in our modern, dispassionate world.
Whether intentionally so or not, Neil and Marina possess little of the humanity that makes Father Quintana such a compelling character. Malick has long telegraphed conflict and feeling through non-verbal means, like the way Neil circles around and brushes against Jane (McAdams), a childhood friend with whom he shares a brief, tumultuous tryst. In the cinematic language of Malick, such blocking suggests a disconnect between the two characters and negates the need for melodramatic confrontations. Even by this logic, however, it is hard to justify how Marina frolics and prances about — all the time, everywhere, in city squares and supermarkets. Marina’s dancing ties into the aforementioned idea that movement equates to life, but it also comes across as quite silly when she barely does anything else. That she turns to God and Father Quintana later in the film almost hints at some inherent instability on her part, when considering the nature of his other parishioners. At the very least, it makes her sort of unpleasant. I never want to laugh at a serious work of art, but come on, Terry, you’re pushing it.
These criticisms must sound fairly imprecise and somewhat petty. Just because I did not relate to the two main characters does not mean they are two-dimensional or without meaning. After 40 years of masterpieces, Malick deserves the benefit of the doubt. The images in To the Wonder are works of art on their own, in a way that a shot of Jane tossing a bale of hay means a whole lot more than Jane just tossing a bale of hay. What does it mean? I’m not so sure. I have no problem with embracing not only the beauty but also the ambiguity in that I do not understand. Besides, that is why we see these kinds of movies again, a prospect I have taken a sudden liking to, now that I think about it …