"I write on water what I dare not say."
TO THE WONDER is told through narration and whispers. A soft-spoken account of connection and the hopeful revival of sensation. What is important? What fulfills us? Director Terrence Malick strips away the baggage, leaving only what's essential, here. Once more he has created a moving, lyrical poem. It is about man and woman. This is not a love story, but a life story.
Two-years ago, director Terrence Malick released THE TREE OF LIFE, a film as large in scale as in calculation. It involved the birth of the universe and the presence of dinosaurs. WONDER's scope is considerably smaller, but there's no doubt that it's a companion piece to its big sister. TREE is about life and existence; WONDER focuses on compassion and belief. We begin with Neil and Marina on the beaches of the French coast. A cathedral is visible in the background as the two leads walk gingerly across the moist sand. The couple, played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, are in love but you get the feeling that their bond will last about as long as their fleeting footprints.
Their relationship is told in compact moments. Marina and her daughter Tatiana accompany Neil back to rural Oklahoma. The terrain changes to a world barely populated. There are people there, but they seem to only serve a purpose of false landmarks for Marina to grasp onto. Soon, passionate embraces shift to unpleasant arguments. When her visa expires, she and her child are gone as quickly as they came. This recess allows Neil to re-establish with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a former flame, whose attachment was just as easily snuffed out.
Kurylenko got her break as a Bond girl in 2008's QUANTUM OF SOLACE. It's evident she's so much more than that. Marina puts a lot of trust in Neil. When it's not reciprocated, her heartbreak is punishing. Malick is known for a certain form of lunacy regarding the amount of film he shoots. To possess the ability to evoke such emotion for such prolonged amounts of time takes talent. Her actions are ethereal, but a youthful enthusiasm soon peels away, revealing layers of scorn and unhappiness. It's remarkable to watch.
It's arguable that the real star of the film is cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. The images this man creates are almost without peer. He has worked on Malick's last three films and is just as imperative to their successes; Lubezki affords Malick the luxury of evading conversation. It can be the shores of western Europe or the fields of middle America. He even makes the outside of a Sonic restaurant look like a work of art.
A side story follows Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local minister who travels around the small town, discoursing with its meager inhabitants. He shares his thoughts with us and them. While Neil and Marina clash with each other, Quintana combats his own faith. His presence I found to be unnecessary, however. An undistinguished addition, washed away in a sea of ordinary.
WONDER isn't for everyone, and that's okay. Malick long ago gave up the need to subject his audience to a conventional trajectory. He lets you fill in the blanks and come to your own conclusions. It is filled with long stretches of almost zero dialogue. Many times, the only thing we hear is its hypnotic and operatic score. I found the sights and sounds exquisite. Too often we're bombarded with useless commotion. TO THE WONDER allows us the opportunity for real awareness.