Writer and director Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is built from shattered hearts, broken relationships, and unanswered prayers, all better “long since forgotten” rather than pondered on film, yet again, in this lyrical but redundant and ultimately navel-gazing tone poem. As truth, To the Wonder is so sad it's almost unbearable. As cinema, it's just unbearable.
In To the Wonder, Terrence Malick's only sixth directorial effort since 1973's Badlands (though his second in the last two years), ever present are the filmmaker's ongoing themes, which can roughly be reduced to several notions about Man's struggle with his natural disposition as opposed to one more suitable to a civilized world where a god might be watching. Man's disposition, by Malick's measure, is a combination of surly ambivalence about love (however much desired) and a yearning for oneness with nature, if not God himself, despite the fact that humans abuse and/or doubt all of the above.
To the Wonder: Terrence Malick and the 'male disposition'
In this particular instance, Malick is specifically concerned with the male disposition. Whereas in The Tree of Life God is mostly conceptual and aligned with a female presence, in To the Wonder God and his agent, represented by a conflicted priest played by Javier Bardem, are definitely masculine entities.
Indeed, women in To The Wonder are treated with something that approaches disdain. The adult ones are infantilized and reduced to clinging, simpering waifs. They are the subject of men's desire and the fodder for men's decisions about their own lives.
When Neil (Ben Affleck, replacing Christian Bale) meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko), an Ukrainian woman with a ten-year-old daughter living in Paris, they play out a fairy-tale relationship full of long walks along the Seine and love-making in dewy fields. All the while, Marina and the little girl fall ever more in love with the handsome American who just might save them.
Yet, when Neil asks Marina and her daughter to go to Oklahoma with him to continue their fairy tale, both the fact that he asks and that she accepts feel ridiculous. What mother of a ten-year-old daughter, however smitten, would do this? A foolish one. A childish one. A bad one. And this is the least of Marina's juvenile decisions.
Jane (Rachel McAdams), the second woman subjected to Neil's indeliberate advances, is an old flame. She quivers at his brooding side-on glances and behaves just as absurdly, if in a slightly less infantile manner, as Marina. As for To the Wonder's third female, the ten-year-old girl Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), she follows her mother both physically and emotionally, ultimately becoming the actual victim of Neil's existential whims. In fact, Tatiana suffers the sort of emotional abuse of which only adults who fancy themselves “parent material” are capable. That either Neil or Marina would be anywhere near a child is the most dramatically arresting notion in the whole movie.
To the Wonder: Underdeveloped female characters
In short, To the Wonder is belittling of women and abusive to little girls while remaining deeply concerned with male existential angst. True, the artist's concern is the artist's concern and cannot be dictated. However, from a cinematic, narrative, and emotional standpoint, Terrence Malick's complete lack of interest in developing a single complex female character in a film ostensibly concerned with the human condition is deflating to the filmmaker's status as a seminal interpreter of that condition – at least in the eyes of this critic.
Besides the inequity between the sexes, To the Wonder suffers from narrative inanities, many of which are verbalized in rambling voice-overs about everyday human failures. They are meant to be poetic, which they are, and revelatory, which they are not.
Love's end is not a revelation. Our struggle with our environment is not new. Our lingering doubts about our deepest beliefs are ancient and experienced by everyone. These concepts are ordinary, and while they are fodder for cinema, in To the Wonder they feel like placeholders for a story that Malick, with his penchant for the philosophical, is not inclined to tell – and so he doesn't.
[“To the Wonder: Terrence Malick Lyrical, Redundant Poem” continues on the next page. See link below.]
Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams To the Wonder image: Magnolia Pictures.