Oklahoma-bred auteur Terrence Malick offers up a wondrous cinematic poem that ruminates on the nature of love with “To the Wonder.”
The rare truly experimental art filmmaker to gain mainstream acclaim, the famously mysterious Malick, 69, grew up in Bartlesville, and he filmed “To the Wonder” in and around his hometown, Pawhuska and Tulsa, as well as in France. Per the norm for Malick, it is largely a visual experience, and Oklahoma's natural beauty, especially the bison herds roaming the golden plain of Pawhuska's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, are every bit as beguiling as some of France's best-known landmarks.
While the film has an autobiographical bent — Malick was once married to a Frenchwoman who moved with him to the United States, where their union ultimately fell apart — “To the Wonder” mulls over universal themes.
Malick maintains his signature esoteric post-narrative style with the romantic drama. There's not much story and even less dialogue, leaving it to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's immersive imagery as well as the movie's entrancing score, which melds Tchaikovsky, Haydn and Wagner with Hanan Townshend's original music and nature's own soundtrack of moaning winds and whooshing tides, to evoke much of the emotion.
Ben Affleck ostensibly plays the main character but utters no more than 20 words in the two-hour runtime, and half of those are muffled. His co-stars Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem do most of the talking via rather lofty voice-overs.
Admittedly, I've not always been open to the director's cinematic meanderings, but “To the Wonder” delves into a topic I find fascinating: romantic love in the context of the mundane.
After all, it's easy to fall and feel transcendentally in love amid the ancient monastery and vast beaches of Mont Saint-Michel, the island off Normandy, France, considered “The Wonder of the Western World.” That's where we first meet Neil (Affleck), a taciturn American tourist who has embarked on a passionate affair with Marina (Kurylenko), an Eastern European single mother living in Paris.
Since he also has an effortless camaraderie with Marina's 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), Neil invites them to come and live with him in Bartlesville. But the idyllic love that came so easily while on holiday becomes much harder to hold once it is uprooted to a subdivision in a strange land where Marina and Tatiana have no connection besides the inscrutable Neil.
The perpetually muted Neil doesn't really live in his sparsely furnished suburban home. His passion, pale and understated as it is, apparently resides in his work as an environmental inspector, determinedly slogging around dreary oil-field sites and the dismal neighborhoods around them.
Marina finds some solace worshipping in the sparkling new Catholic church, where Father Quintana's (Bardem) faith feels old and uninspired. The priest dutifully tends the poor, sick and imprisoned while desperately struggling and praying to feel a renewed connection to God.
As his relationship with Marina and her daughter falters, Neil re-connects with a bright old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a flaxen-haired rancher who has recently been widowed. But he again finds it difficult to keep the hot spark of new love kindled.
Like Marina's repeated free-spirited spins through the green and golden Oklahoma grasslands, love can be soul-altering, if it can survive the monotony of life.
— Brandy McDonnell