In a wedding scene in Terrence Malick’s new film, To the Wonder, an elderly woman tells the priest (Javier Bardem) that she offers a specific prayer on his behalf, namely, that he might experience the gift of joy. I felt myself offering a similar prayer as I watched Malick’s film, a film about love and wonder that is almost entirely void of joy or even real passion. Echoing many of the themes of Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, Wonder is a disappointing follow-up.
It is difficult not to compare Wonder with Tree, especially with the trailer for the new film containing scenes that look like outtakes from the previous film. Wonder is much less ambitious than Tree, which weaves together a grand narrative of the creation of the universe with a reflection on the attempt of a single family in Waco, Tex., to come to terms with the death of a loved one. Shattering grief in the face of death gives the film both its emotional core and its theological focus (Where is God? Why would a God who encompasses the vastness of the universe care for finite, fragile creatures stranded on planet earth?). Both films have taxed the patience of viewers. Tree was perhaps best known for the reports of viewers walking out on its lengthy, baffling story line. Yet it is a rewarding film. Despite its focus on death, it has more scenes of sheer joy than does Wonder. Much shorter than its predecessor, Wonder manages to feel longer.
Wonder’s plot, such as it is, is simple enough. Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American working in Paris who falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), the mother of ten-year-old Tatiana. The three get along quite well in Paris. When they move to Neil’s hometown in Oklahoma, however, things go awry. Here as elsewhere we are not given enough information to discern precisely how and why this occurs.
Whatever the cause, “something is missing,” as Tatiana puts it. There is an ominous sense that the earth itself is tainted; Affleck’s job has something to do with testing the soil, and he appears to discover contamination.
As things with Marina become volatile, Neil becomes romantically involved with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina eventually returns with her daughter to Paris. Tatiana goes to live with her father, and the city has lost its luster for Marina. Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma, Neil’s relationship with Jane sours. In a voiceover, Jane berates Neil for turning their love into nothing, for corrupting it with lust. After a short time, Marina returns to Oklahoma and reestablishes a relationship with Neil. At various points, Neil and Marina seek the counsel of the local parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who has struggles of his own.
The great theme of the film is love. The priest repeatedly talks of love in his sermons. In an opening voiceover, Marina speaks of love as a unifying force. But the film is less about unity than it is about separation, even hostility. For a brief time, characters bask in love, but the least failure opens the road to temptation — to infidelity, jealousy, anger, and retribution.
Bardem is initially captivating as the priest struggling with his faith and obsessed with experiencing and communicating love. But because the plot is so thin and because we learn of his struggles only from his own interior monologue, we do not have any deep connection with him. Moreover, his predicament never develops. There is a powerful scene in which the priest is seen ministering to prisoners, the infirm, the dying, and the mentally disabled. Yet, he remains grim and expressionless. Part of the point here — one made directly in a voiceover — is that love is not merely about feelings. Fair enough. But for a filmmaker who is endlessly captivated with the beauty and majesty of nature, Malick, especially in this film, detects little of either in human persons.
In Wonder as in Tree, Malick makes a serious attempt at a depiction of the human search for love, with other human beings and with God. In his attempt to open a space for God, Malick employs various strategies, perhaps the most important of which has to do with his peculiar way of using interior speech. This involves a novel, perhaps at times excessive, use of voiceover. The fascination with characters’ commentary on events, often at the expense of depiction of events, contributes to the abstract feel of Malick’s films. Yet, the attention to interior speech has a decisive advantage when it comes to portraying religious experience; for it captures the way in which believers silently express to God their petitions and hopes, their frustrations and doubts. The interior speech of the priest frames the quest in this film: “You are present yet I can’t see you.” “How long will you hide yourself?” “Show us how to see you.”
The film begins and ends at the medieval, Romanesque church that crowns the island of Mont Saint-Michel, on the coast of Normandy. In the opening, as Marina and Neil climb the stone steps to the church, Marina describes them as ascending “to the wonder.” Even more than his characters, Malick as a filmmaker seeks the wonder. He aspires to create what the medieval architects achieved with the construction of the church and its attendant buildings on Mont Saint-Michel, a work that unites the human and the divine, the immanent and the transcendent, the artistic and the religious. It is a pity that To the Wonder falls so far short of that admirable goal.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.