To the Wonder Movie Review

It’s a lot like love. Just a lot more boring.

Renowned filmmaker Terrence Malick returns to the cinema this week with To the Wonder, a meditation on the ins and outs of love. Though his meditation ends up as more of a nap.

Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) meet in France and fall in love. She’s raising a 10-year-old daughter, he’s got a job back in the United States. After a romantic tryst to the island of Mont St. Michel, Neil takes Marina and her daughter back with him to Oklahoma so they can live and begin a life together.

The sweet time in France becomes a fleeting memory for the couple as they quickly grow apart. Neil becomes consumed with work while Marina feels increasingly isolated and alone in a strange land. She eventually turns to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) a fellow European exile who’s experiencing a crisis of faith that’s affecting his vocation.

Their connection does little to ease either of their concerns. Quintana becomes further disillusioned while Neil and Marina grow further apart. When her visa runs out, Marina returns to France with her daughter while Neil finds solace in his childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams).

Apart, things do not improve for either Neil or Marina. Marina is lost in Europe as her daughter’s father claims custody and she has trouble finding work. Neil feels even less of a connection with Jane than he did Marina and he considers reconciling with his former love.

It’s a somewhat conventional story of love, relationships and the end of both that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but the storytelling is far from conventional. Presented as something like a memory, the characters tell the story in a dearth of voiceovers as the camera sweeps them into a dream-like presentation where we cycle through key moments in their relationships without ever settling in one point for more than a fleeting glimpse.

It’s an interesting idea, to examine a love affair the way it seems best and the way it seems worst: In how we remember it. The problem with such an exercise is that, much like remembering an event, it just isn’t quite as exciting as when you live through it and the film dully floats in that world of memory without any semblance of a driving plot.

It’s as though we just watched a film about a love affair gone wrong and are describing it to somebody who hadn’t seen it. “There was this part where they went to an island.” “There was that part where Rachel McAdams recoiled from Ben Affleck.” “There was that part where Javier Bardem visited the guy with the weird teeth.”

Except that’s the movie. It’s not our recollection of the movie. It is the movie. A drift through those parts without anything to connect them except an incessant voiceover from the four main characters. A voiceover in the past tense as we watch a story in real time told to us in past-time. It’s meant to give it weight – as though we are living out our own memories through this character, but instead it just weighs the film down as it can’t get out of its own way.

Where the film does succeed is in its sumptuous visuals. Malick’s dream-like storytelling method lends itself to an almost mystical visual style. Malick’s camera sweeps through cutout suburbia of Oklahoma in a way that makes track homes and vacant lots explode through the screen like a bombastic work of art. There simply won’t be a more beautiful film to look at with more stunning visuals all year.

But this film never becomes more than its visuals. While its hypnotic in the way it’s structured and stunningly presented, it doesn’t have much to say outside of people recoiling following an embrace and various subplots that aren’t explored or connected in any way to the main story. Those are the biggest takeaways from the actual substance of this film, and that’s a major problem.

There’s no grand statement here. No insight into the vastness and depth of love. Instead, it’s just a portrait of relationships inhabited by cold and unlikable characters who have no choice but to drift apart, and it’s hard to deride anything from something that cold and distant.

It ends up a beautiful vision that doesn’t have much below its exterior. It looks so wonderful, but once the initial stun of the its style wears away, it’s just an empty film delivered in a gorgeous package.

Like a torrid love affair you instantly regret.