In engaging any given work of art it still amazes me how so many people, even critics, can miss the most neon-glowingly, blaring, absolutely worst aspects of a film, or even the best aspects. But, in dealing with writer and director Terrence Malick’s 2012 drama, To The Wonder, unfortunately, and shockingly, almost all the things missed are bad. Yes, the film is the most consistently poorly reviewed film of his career, a 42 year career that has seen only six films released- or one every 7 years, but most of the criticisms of the film are bad critics merely preening their own ignorance regarding Malick’s methods, for they have written the same negative views regarding films of his that were masterpieces.
A perfect example is the consistent criticism of Malick’s use of voiceover throughout his canon. In his first five films this narrative trope works, but in this one it does not, and there’s a good reason for this. It’s not that voiceover, as a device, fails, or is an admission of narrative flaws by a director, but that in his other films, Malick’s voiceovers are concise, poetic, and apt. In To The Wonder, the voiceovers, by the two lead female characters, and a wayward priest, are abysmal clichés. Literally, in the first five minutes of the film, the lead brunette French female protagonist, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) utters a dozen sickeningly sweet banalities about love in the 15-16 utterances given her- a 75-80% rate, and, in the whole of the film, literally, that rate of cliché never dips below, perhaps 40%. And it’s just not the damnable uttered clichés, which make the speakers of them seem to be simpletons, but the whole narrative bent of this film, which is a glammed up melodrama attempting to masque as a drama. Witness the summary of the film’s plot I will copy directly from Wikipedia, with my bolded interpolations:
Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American traveling in Europe who meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian divorcée who is raising her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) in Paris. The lovers travel to Mont St. Michel, the island abbey off the coast of Normandy, basking in the wonder of their newfound romance. Neil makes a commitment to Marina, inviting her to relocate to his native Oklahoma with Tatiana. Neil takes a job as an environmental inspector, and Marina settles into her new life in America. After some time, the couple’s passionate romance cools, and Marina finds solace with the Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is undergoing a crisis of faith. Along with this, Tatiana begins to feel homesick due to not having any friends at her school, and claiming Neil is not her father. Sometime later, Marina tells Neil that her visa has expired, and she and her daughter return to France.
In this first paragraph we see the influence of PR handouts, because, in the film we don’t hear the Affleck character referred to by name, nor do we ever get his thoughts narrating a segment. He is a tabula rasa, and, in fact, this is a film which, by its very nature, should have followed the Italian Neo-Realist aesthetic of having non-actors in the roles. In fact, many minor roles seem to be inhabited by non-actors, for if not, then these secondary and tertiary characters blow away the acting chops displayed by the main characters’ portrayers.
As for Marina- we do get her name, but we are never made aware that she is NOT French, as both her and her daughter’s names are classical French names. Perhaps the actress’s real name influenced this claim? We also are not given a clue as to Affleck’s nor Frenchy’s backgrounds before they met. Affleck may have been assigned to work in Europe, as he has a job reminiscent of that held by Richard Harris’s character in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 classic, The Red Desert. This is one of many leached devices from a far greater film that Malick employs, and one of the signs of an artist failing is when their borrowings are not expansions of the borrowed, but buoys tossed out to try and prop up the failing artwork by saying, to the cognoscenti, ‘See, this is just like X, that great work of art.’ Unfortunately, good critics are not fooled, and see the move for what it is. Affleck seems to hold a job as some private or public environmental scientist, testing for lead, cadmium, and other waste products in the water and soil of his native Oklahoma. They do head to America, but the film leaves all this blank. The Wikipedia summary is a classic font of misinformation on the plot. Javier Bardem’s presence in the film, save for being a possible box office draw, is puzzling. His character has only 3-4 major segments, lasting 3-4 minutes each, and all he does is whine, again, in the most blatantly written and trite ways possible. Ok, we get it, you wanna know Jesus! Frenchy then does take her brat back home to France, but we never get a reason for why the relationship suffers. We never hear any utterances from Affleck above a grunt, and Frenchy seems to be one of those perpetual naifs, whose main joy in life is being a romantic who dances through supermarket aisles, as if a reject from a 1970s era vintage commercial.
Continuing his job as an environmental inspector, Neil reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend. Jane tells Neil that her farm is going bankrupt due to her previous husband entering a gambling debt. Neil begins a romance with Jane. Back in France, after giving Tatiana over to be with her former husband, Marina misses Oklahoma and is unable to find a job. Due to Neil's unwillingness to commit with Jane, their relationship disintegrates. Returning to Oklahoma, Marina reconnects with Neil, and the couple marries in a civil ceremony. After going to the doctor discussing the removal of an intrauterine device in order to have children, Marina, shortly after having a religious marital ceremony, begins to feel isolated again, and their relationship begins to deteriorate. Meanwhile, Father Quintana continues to minister to prisoners and local people. One day, Marina approaches Charlie (Charles Baker), a carpenter who gave her a wind harp some time before, and she follows him to a motel room where the two have a tryst. While in a drive-through at a fast food restaurant, Marina confesses to the affair asking Neil for forgiveness. In anger, Neil pulls over and leaves Marina stranded by the road. Shortly after, Neil returns to pick her up.
Now, the name Jane may be uttered in the film, but because the voiceovers mute all other sounds- save for the soundtrack (Malick’s worst- more on that later), this seems like another PR claim. In my mind, I called the blonde character Plathy, after the melodramatic American poetess, and, in her voiced over scene, she is as abysmal as Frenchy or the priest, save that her banalities are of the love and death sort- hence her name as Plathy. In fact, given that Affleck was not given a name, his character might as well have been called Mannekin, or Man, for short. Man, Priest, Frenchy, And Plathy….no, To The Wonder’s a better title; about the only thing Malick did do right.
The film moves so swiftly through Plathy’s section that we get no real sense of their relationship, and one brief nude scene where Man and Plathy are having sex, apparently, in a wind tunnel that flutters their bed sheets to reveal their forms. The priest continues to mope, and Frenchy decides she wants back to America. She writes Man that she will marry some loser for a visa, which presumably prompts Man to dump Plathy, who falls to pieces (the only thing we do NOT see is the white coats and an open oven door), and welcome back the increasingly and obviously neurotic Frenchy, sans her bratty child, who lives now with her father. For no reason, Frenchy disintegrates mentally, emotionally, and ethically, and decides to bed down at a cheap motel, with the character cited as Charlie, in the Wikipedia summary, although, like all the other claims, there seems to be no evidence that he has a name. Let’s call him Cuckolder. Like many in the town/area of Oklahoma where man and Frenchy live, Cuckolder seems to be inbred or mutant-like. Then we get another obvious nod to a great scene from one of the greatest films ever made, Federico Fellini’s 1959 classic, La Dolce Vita. Just as Marcello Mastroianni’s character leaves his pain in the ass lover on the side of a road, only to later return for her in his sports car, so does Man leave Frenchy, only to return for her. The difference is that Fellini’s dialogue is superb art, whereas Malick’s overemoting (Man breaks the glass in his SUV’s driver’s side rearview mirror) makes one cringe.
Neil later seeks counseling from Father Quintana, while Marina seems to have a new child from her encounter with Charlie. Neil follows the priest as he ministers to the poor and appears to learn forgiveness and humility from the experience. Neil eventually offers Marina his forgiveness, kneeling before her and kissing her hands. Nonetheless, it seems Neil and Marina divorce and they are last seen together as he leaves Marina at an airport. Marina tells him, "I want to keep your name". The film's closing moments depict Father Quintana in his work tending the aged, the poor and the imprisoned with voice-over from the Priest reciting a variation of the prayer of St. Patrick ("Christ with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me..."). In a sequence presumably set a few years later, Neil is seen with what looks like his eventual family while Marina wakes in a rain-drenched, pastoral setting. In a state of ecstatic discovery, she turns to see a brilliant, golden light pass over her face. Suddenly, the film ends with the image of "the Wonder" – Mont Saint-Michel – rooted to the earth with its spire piercing heaven.
Now, we never hear the none too bright priest offer any words of solace to others in the film, much less man, so we have to fill in the blanks. Frenchy ends up with a new child, and given how easily man lets her depart, it likely is Cuckolder’s, although we never see him in her life again, and, as in any bad soap opera, an act of infidelity MUST result in a bastard! The film’s ending is imbued and informed by PR, as we have no real idea how man and Frenchy end up, and the flashback to the cathedral at Normandy in no way relates to the film’s title. This is, again, 100% PR generated pap.
To The Wonder smacks of being an Old Man’s Film- something that is a cannibal on a master’s earlier and better work. In a sense, this is sort of Malick’s version of Fellini’s Intervista or Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband. It’s a better film than either of those, and overall, I’d give it a slightly passable 70 out of 100, but that’s because it gets a near 100 in its cinematography. Rarely has a film been almost solely carried along by its visual splendor and DP Emmanuel Lubezki, along with Malick, should have pushed this film even further. Since Frenchy’s and the priest’s voiceovers are in French and Spanish (with white subtitles often lost amidst the light intensive cinematography (hint- ALL subtitles for color films should be in gold font bordered in black), and utterly trite, Malick SHOULD have pushed the film OVER the edge into almost pure visuals- with only ambient sounds and occasional seeming found dialogue- a real return to a 21st century type of de facto ‘silent’ film. A narrative fictive film with visuals like Godfrey Reggio’s Quatsi films, and the use of Neo-Realistic non-actors could have been truly revolutionary for the industry, and To The Wonder, for all its many and manifest flaws, COULD have been a great film, with just a few minor tweaks- a less intrusive and leading score, a more minimalist and better written use of voiceovers, a more daring use of non-actors in the lead roles.
It is one of the enduring wonders of the quale of greatness that a work of art that might crest at excellence or near greatness will be forever farther away from greatness than a work of art that is nowhere near such heights, yet could be with a few modifications. To The Wonder is an exemplar prime of this quirky notion and reality. The peerless cinematography, its relentless push into visual extremes (as if knowing it had to balance the banalization of the screenplay) makes the banal landscapes of Oklahoma seem like a planet out of the Star Wars universe, as subdivision homes seem like Moundbuilder huts millennia past. Other city scenes reminded me of the chromatic flaring Stanley Kubrick employed in his 1950s black and white film, Killer’s Kiss, while still others evoke the nighttime loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting. The camera work is richer and more metaphorical than anything Malick has previously achieved, likely due to nothing else being there, and all the more important in providing a structure of some sort to the mewling melodrama. And, as visually intensive as this film is, were Malick merely at the level of his first two 1970s films, visually, this would be inarguably a bad film.
The film’s soundtrack, by Hanan Townshend, is quite poor, and as banal and predictably deployed as the existential vapidities Frenchy, Plathy, and the Priest (an utterly superfluous character) utter. Had the priest been dropped, the film’s 113 minute running time could have been cut by twenty minutes. There simply is no acting that is required for this film. And, unlike Fellini, Bergman, Woody Allen, or a myriad of other filmmakers who seem to coast into old age, Malick is clearly not coasting- it just seems that, as his visual skill and daring has increased, he simply has little left to say, for To The Wonder is an old man’s gauzy look at love, replete with an abomination of stale love clichés from Frenchy, desperate existential clichés from Plathy, and cloying religious banalities from the priest. It is also the most utterly qualitatively schizophrenic film in memory. For all its glitz, it’s a pitiful examination of alienation and loneliness, and films as diverse as those in Antionioni’s L’Alienation Trilogy and a low budget horror film, like Carnival Of Souls, examine those states FAR better.
In his own review of the film, Roger Ebert’s final published film review before his death, he wrote
Snatches of dialogue, laughter, shared thoughts, drift past us. Nothing is punched up for dramatic effect.
Yet, this is not so, and clearly wrong, as the very uttered clichés and affected scoring are doing nothing BUT trying to produce drama from stale soap opera.
Ebert also wrote:
A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.
Yet the film is utterly lacking in vision; it is an ejaculation of youth’s deathly dream, done by a man cranking up that final load. In short, as a man near death, himself, Ebert saw much in Malick’s desires to embrace the all of life, including its worst, as something that could only be seen as good. From the realm of the living, of course, any critic worth his salt must demur such saccharine.
In another, earlier review of the film, on Cosmoetica, by Alex Sheremet, he wrote:
After watching Malick’s To The Wonder, I must come to the melancholy view that -- with nearly four decades of film-making behind him -- this is Malick’s first film without some argument for greatness.
That is correct, for while the film’s visuals are greater than ever, the reality is that 20% of a film’s quality cannot override the negatives of the other 80%, no matter how great.
He also wrote:
The mother and daughter then go back to Paris, and Neil starts a brief relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood acquaintance, that ends for much the same reason: Neil’s difficulty with closeness. No, this is not some pointless detour, as it’s been said, but merely an intensification of the same arc, for we see, now, that Neil’s issues aren’t specific to his relationship with Marina, but go back to himself, as they play out in near-identical terms all over again. At the same time, we realize that both Jane and Marina have come to Neil demanding happiness, and perhaps this is what turns him off from most human interaction.
It is interesting to note 3 aspects in this passage: 1) Sheremet correctly refers to Plathy as a childhood acquaintance- not an ex-lover, which so many other critics wrote, 2) he posits a likely reason for the central failure of the two relationships in the film, and 3) he uses the word perhaps in describing the mechanism of those failures.
He also writes:
At some point, Marina sees a man working outside, and possibly fantasizes over him. In fact, when Marina’s friend, Anna (Romina Mondello), exhorts her to be “free,” that life is but a dream and therefore no mistakes are possible, a series of odd looks come over Marina, and one wonders if she’s thinking of this stranger throughout the speech. Good acting? Narrative? You bet.
On this I vehemently disagree. This passage, in fact, was one of the most trite ones, even as it had real dialogue and not voiceover. I knew how the scene would play out from the first appearance of the nameless French friend (one assumes her name was promoted by PR hacks), who comes and goes with no warning- a deus ex machina of vapidity, and this scene, in fact, is one of those that made me yearn for a more daring Malick casting non-actors. To The Wonder could have easily been this century’s answer to The Bicycle Thief.
However, things are what they are, and To The Wonder is a schizophrenic mess, with one foot planted on the boat of genius, and the other moored to the dock of senescent flatus, so tired it doesn’t even have the decency to make one’s nose turn.