Released in 2012, To the Wonder marks the shortest timeframe between Terrence Malick films - with Palme D'Or winner Tree of Life dominating 2011. To the Wonder didn't garner the same attention as Tree of Life, but it holds a similar DNA as it dreamily reflects on the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). As an artist, Malick reacts to the moment and ruthlessly excises unnecessary characters and ideas if they do not relate to the core-story he is trying to tell. The Thin Red Line removed performances by Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke, while To The Wonder removed characters portrayed by Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper and Jessica Chastain. Creatively, this demonstrates a sense of expression that is honest and true. At this point in his career (and his success in 2011) he has absolute freedom and the final edit is absolutely what he wants - unlike Clooney in The Thin Red Line, whereby studios forced him to include an A-List star. Additionally, Oscar-winner Ben Affleck appears in the film and, rather than an acting job alone, Affleck was bound to use this opportunity to observe what many believe is one of the greatest living directors, on the job.
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset/ Sunrise/ Midnight triptych philosophises on relationships through constant dialogue between characters that, whether relatable or not, give the impression that lead characters Celine and Jesse are a little too self-involved. To the Wonder doesn't philosophise with the excessive dialogue and, instead, manages to explore similar issues by using extreme close-ups of intimate moments to direct our attention.
Marina (Kurylenko) is front and centre as we see her relationship begin (in Paris) and break down (in the USA), through an obsession towards her American lover Neil (Affleck). The opening of the film depicts the only moments of hand-held video-recording as Neil and Marina are deeply falling for each other. Malick remains close to the couple throughout and the subtlety of hands caressing and feeling for each other, while they laugh and smile, romantically set the foundations of this film as a deeply personal story. The relationship in Badlands hints at an almost self-destructive journey as Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are on the run - To the Wonder doesn't seem to hold such pessimism in these opening moments.
Beauty and romance are overpowering in these early scenes - and the addition of Marina's daughter (Tatiana Chiline) provides Neil with a paternal role which he manages to live up to. Again, akin to Linklater's trilogy, it romanticises Europe - and Paris in particular (the setting for Before Sunrise) - in this opening before transferring the film to Oklahoma and the suburban lifestyle Neil affords through his environment-inspector profession.
Faith and Future
Outside of the relationship, in Oklahoma, we are also introduced to Catholic Priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who supports Marina while he has a crisis of faith on his own. The separation in story as we see Quintana visit the poverty-stricken citizens of the town invites comparison - as does the re-location from France to America. We question whether Marina and Neil fell in love because of the journey they shared - and whether the static moments in the US combined with the industrial surroundings are what chipped away at their initial moments of happiness. We also reflect on the "struggles" they have as we also see the challenges of other town members when visited by Father Quintana – Marina and Neil are unique and lucky to have each other in such comfortable circumstances. Quintana's support of them is potentially the reason he has this crisis, especially when you consider the support he offers those in prison that far outweigh Marina and Neil's sense of confinement and apparent lack of love.
Jane (Rachel McAdams), is described as Neil’s lost-love and a woman who he conducts an affair with when Marina is forced to return to Paris. This period is ambiguous as Marina now sees the tall, modern buildings of Paris as oppressive and dreams of the beauty of the endless fields and landscape Neil and Jane conduct their affair upon. It begs the question as to whether Jane exists at all considering the perspective is primarily Marina's and the two never appear to meet. Is it these thoughts of hers that pre-empt the end of their relationship? Does Marina imagine that she is not good enough, in turn prompting her to destroy and end their marriage? Ambiguity is what Malick does best and I can only marvel at the endless questions that arise from these various plot-threads.
This post was originally published for Flickering Myth on 17th June 2013