#5 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.
After the expansive and visionary trio of films The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick narrows his focus down to a single man navigating a pair of relationships in a study of love. It’s a rather sudden reversal of several things from Malick, most notably his pace of work. The space between his films had never been less than five years, and suddenly he comes out with a new film a mere year after his last. I do think he could have used more time in editing, fleshing out a certain aspect of the film that could help provide some extra perspective but feels light on its own, but otherwise this new quick pace from a notoriously slow working auteur is a welcome change of pace.
Once again at least partially born from his own experiences, Malick tells the story of a man who falls in love with a beautiful French woman and brings her, along with her ten year old daughter, home to Texas to live with him. Neil, played by Ben Affleck, is an environmental investigator of work sites of some kind, tough and dirty and inward facing. Marina has many of the qualities of several of Malick’s leading ladies, a sort of sprite-like nature manifested in captured moments where she floats through the frame. She gives. He takes. He never gives anything back, and their relationship frays while her daughter, Tatiana, steadily loses interest in this new American life and wishes a return to Paris.
Parallel to this story is Father Quintana, as played by Javier Bardem. Quintana reminds me a lot of Gunnar Björnstrand’s character in Bergman’s Winter Light. Saying mass in front of a nearly empty church, he wonders at the love he gives to God and never feels in return. We can see the parallel to Marina’s story here dramatically as well as in a snippet of a sermon we hear Quintana speak about the dual nature of love. Where The Tree of Life started with a quote from Job, To the Wonder could have started with the famous quote of love from Corinthians.
The problem is that Neil, Marina, and Quintana are people first. Filled with flaws and doubts, they make mistakes and drift apart from love. Neil simply does not give in relationships, so he ends up pushing Marina away. He starts a brief affair with Rachel McAdams’ Jane, but they want vastly different things. He seems to be looking for something purely physical while she is looking for something far deeper that he simply cannot give her. Marina, meanwhile back in Paris, finds herself adrift, even having lost her daughter to the girl’s father, happy to be back in France and a steady home. Marina drifts back to Texas and throws herself at Neil, and the two get quickly married.
And yet, even with marriage the conflicts brew. She seems to have some amount of mental instability like depression while he’s flabbergasted at the work that Marina needs just to keep her happy. They’re both looking for some kind of happiness in the other, but they can’t seem to communicate what it is to each other. The movie often calls back to their first meeting, the start of the movie, where they had a joyful but brief courtship. It’s the newest manifestation of Malick’s recurring motif of the lost Eden on earth, this time brought out as an emotional moment in time rather than tied to a more physical place like the treehouse or the farm or the house in Waco.
In the end, love is found, but it’s a hard lesson for all involved. Neil and Marina do end up finding some kind of peace after she betrays him and confesses it. The outright betrayal and ultimate forgiveness seems to forge a stronger relationship, and yet she still ends up leaving back to France. Their goodbye is tender and touching, and yet made all the more potent by the fact that they did find some measure of peace. This is matched by Father Quintana finding the love of God through his ministry, though it does seem to come from nowhere in the film. This is the part of the film that needed the most attention in the edit, and I think Malick missed something in the transition into the movie’s final moments around Quintana.
Quintana’s search for God’s love in his own work does cross over into Malina’s story from time to time as he tries to minster to her about her troubles, and I can see where he was going structurally with Quintana intellectually though I feel like just a bit is missing. Malick could have pushed Quintana further, much like the creation of the cosmos in The Tree of Life, and provided a larger frame in which the story takes place, but it ends up feeling just as small as the romance between Malina and Neil. That’s really the only unfortunate thing about it. I feel like it could have been bigger and would have helped.
This is the movie where Malick really started to lean into the production style of capturing moments completely. To say that he didn’t do it before is to ignore the production history of every movie of his since Days of Heaven, but here is seems to completely take over, like he never shot a straight scene with a script. The thing that I’ve figured about Malick, going through his filmography again this time, is that he’s always improvising his way to a completed work. He knows what he wants, but he has to create variations the entire way from production through to editing. I could never work creatively like that, but Malick keeps doing it and doing it well. If only one of his worked well using this kind of technique, I’d say he was just lucky, but they all work. His dedicated style of non-linear editing, voiceover, and captured moments lends itself to the technique, which definitely helps, but it is still kind of amazing that someone can work so consistently like that to me.
Anyway, To The Wonder is definitely the smallest movie he’s made up to this point, even smaller than Badlands. It’s more focused on a smaller canvas with a smaller cast of characters since the beginning, and its intended thematic scope feels smaller as well. That decrease of thematic ambition is an interesting direction to take. I think of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter that made a smaller movie but with the same large tools as Lawrence of Arabia as a counterpoint. To the Wonder, though, is a touching and intimate movie about love in two distinct forms, and the ever present search for its manifestations in our lives.