Hard to imagine that Terrence Malick could create something so over-structured as a followup to his masterful Tree of Life – the formula does not always fit.
My abiding respect for Terrence Malick grows with each of his cinematic entries I devour. However, this latest offering by the ethereal auteur lacks the powerful connection of his preceding cinematic canon. To the Wonder browbeats – overly dictated in structure, presenting everything on the nose with less clarity – and meanders far less gracefully than its predecessors.
More linear than its spiritual and chronological forerunner Tree of Life, this film orients on a cross-continental romance. Neil (Affleck) lives in France, courting radiant beauty Marina (Kurylenko) and her little gatekeeper, Tatiana. There, they wander city and countryside, accompanied by the effervescent narration of mademoiselle’s ponderings on “amore”.
As the relationship progresses, the three travel to the American Midwest, where Neil works. Here the film shifts to examine his perspective on the relationship, walking a thin line between tenderness and aggression. Interspersed are sidebars: the experiences of Tatiana, observing her famille mélangé and assimilating with local students; and the journey of a priest battling doubt – examining the deistic side of love. Questions of nationality, mercy, and loyalty are tested in a couple’s microcosm of love in all its facets.
Whereas Tree of Life uses non-linear narrative and emphasis on themes to erect an engrossing examination of existence and ultimate purpose, this followup suffers from simplicity of theme and disjointed structure. Love is an interesting topic, but is handled as a stepped progression of morals rather than a freeform observation of the whole.
Occasionally it flows with non-narrative rhythms that direct viewers towards contemplation, only to be routed by overbearing plot transitioning to the next aspect. For instance, the Mont Saint-Michel sequence drips of Malick’s unique sense for location and natural metaphor, which is then crammed through an Act break – loudly revealing the questions and motifs being raised. Whereas Tree of Life found ways to maintain the natural progression and believability of everyday life, To the Wonder‘s moments feel contrived and created.
Save for the wonderful Javier Bardem as Father Quintana and the mystical depth of Olga Kurylenko, the other characters flounder solo. Affleck turns in an appropriately distant performance for a male Malick protagonist, but moments away from Kurylenko reveal the woodenness he is sometimes known for. And while the work of Tatiana Chiline is respectable, she is underutilized – failing to compare to her spiritual older brother, Hunter McCracken.
Ultimately To the Wonder falls short, rushed to follow up the success of Malick’s Oscar nomination the previous year. Poised on the edge of brilliance like Tree of Life – rustic and thematic in all the right ways – the film chokes under a firm plot. Perhaps this spells the end of motif non-narratives from Malick, as his next work shows promise to highlight character development similar to prior work. All the better for him, and all the better for his work.