Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Charles Baker and Romina Mondello.
This is my first review for a 2013 film while i still have hundreds of previous year's releases to review. It is just the excitement and the level of transcending emotions in various forms that Terrence Malick brings through his films. Often with a poetical voice over blending with first rate cinematography, the lingering shots, the music and the characters literally floating around in this world of its own created by the wonderful Malick. It was a wonder too that Terrence Malick decided to make and release a movie quite soon after his last release, the giant that was "The Tree of Life". He often takes years to make movies and it shows in his work. His previous movie was in purest form, a masterpiece because it didn't just told us a story about two people falling in love, marriage, family, children, children growing up and other things that comes with life and death but it went way beyond that and offered a rare metaphysical and philosophical narrative mixed with the beginning of times and the end with many things happening in between. On the narrative front, if it was any other director, he would have made it into a mess and even with Malick, you can call it a mess but that is how he is. His movies are more cinematic and above everything than plain bookish or theatrical. To the Wonder was met with rather numb response at its Venice Premiere last year (the boos and claps aside). Even when it just got released in theaters as well as its available on demand, the critics have been less merciful, more confused and just divided on it. Perhaps the most badly received Malick movie is still a life-changing and soul-stirring experience, it is imperfect and its messy but where it works, it leaves a mark on you. As with any other movie by Malick, several actors were completely cut off from the movie. Those includes Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Amanda Peet, Martin Sheen and Barry Pepper. Due to the fact that Malick doesn't really follows traditional screenplays or anything, the footage that is received from filming is monumental and most of it is cut off which is what happened with this movie as well. If you think its "disjointed" or "uneven", that is not what you should call it because it isn't following a proper plot or anything. It is suppose to be like this, it is Malick's own voice and thoughts that he gets to add into an "experience" not a movie where the actors aren't playing mere characters but portraying a voice and a figurative and poetical approach is taken so the actors seems less like actors and more like infusion of what Malick wants to say, what he believes in and how he connects the dots between them.
To the Wonder is Malick's most romantic movie, his most emotionally bared one and Malick at his most vulnerable self as a filmmaker. Movie begins with Neil (Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko) enjoying their vacations of sort in France. The movie begins with a digital footage, which is where you'll see both of these characters at their most playful selves. They are in Paris where we see them joyous, brimming with the feeling of love, burning in desire, a little bit scared perhaps but love is there no matter what the consequences it might bring. The camera moves along with them through the dusky streets of Paris. They are both from different worlds, she is French and has a young daughter as well. He is American and is an environmental consultant. Neil from the very start doesn't seems to be very much loving the feeling of being love, at one moment Marina even tells him to "stop being so serious". We follow them to Mount St. Michel on which stands a fortress like cathedral which is surrounded by mud and water where it seems to be rising above from the earth like a true wonder. There is some significance of "water" present throughout the movie which for an amateur film enthusiast like me is too much of a head scratcher but water is there everywhere. From the moment we see them falling in love to the point where they come back to start a life in a different place, water is shown. Neil's work involves him to study the soil, rocks and water mostly. The turmoil that comes on later in their relationship is shown with an underwater sequence rather than a surface level capturing of sea, river or pond. Water is something they usually play with, it sometimes freezes and it also heats up as well. Anyways i loved that sequence where they play on the muddy land at Mount St. Michel, there are numerous other gorgeous sequences as well. When Neil brings Marina and her daughter to America, the new world, Malick perfectly captures the feeling of being in a place where everything seems strange and new as well as scary. Through Marina, Malick simply presents us a character to whom this place is a wonder but is unsure about the things that it has. Malick is a master of expression through imagery and application of a certain feeling through the voice overs that comes from the very inside of the characters. It seems as if they aren't thinking or speaking these things but a voice so deep inside them that they don't even know exists and it expresses their feelings. Your heart is always right, its a matter of listening to it because it speaks "for" you.
Neil's house in itself speaks more about him than he does in the mid west America in Oklahoma where he works as well. His house has just little furniture stacked here and there, nothing seems to be consistent like the nature of these characters, the feeling inside their new home is uncertain. To Malick, love is a feeling that comes and goes with time but it always remains there in some form. Like a burning flame which gets affected by the blowing air and its intensity seems to increase and decrease. Their life goes on in America, Marina tries to get a grasp of the place and its people, she tries to mingle in their culture and sees her neighbors playing in their backyard with their kids so peacefully and enjoying it. Marina's daughter does the same at her school, she comes back home and plays with her mother and Neil. A time comes when they start to feel like aliens, something is missing, what looked so beautiful and so familiar appears strange now. They make love and they are in love but not always happy. Our soul, body and very existence is based on uncertainty, nothing is enough for us and we always seem to crave for more and never less. Marina has to go back to France now because of her visa is expired, she doesn't hesitates because she feels like going back, nothing is left for her here. Neil and Marina mostly fights and argues, sometimes they just have to be nice to each other but spark seems to have faded. A certain person from Neil's past comes back in his life. Its Jane (McAdams) who is his former love. Its ironic that the appearance of McAdams brings a new life and a different kind of beauty on the screen. Just like Neil, we feel so good to see a new face. McAdams' beauty and her vulnerable nature breathes a new life into the movie. Neil hangs out with her on the farm, which is very vast. A scene where they are surrounded be animals while they sit a top of their car perfectly captures that feeling when you feel free and ready to start a new life away from all the mess that your past had. Malick perfectly shows us both these characters in the middle of beautiful and vast landscapes and mostly in front of the shining sun implying the clarity of their feelings. They make love too, the live together and play in the same manner. But then suddenly, Marina comes back in his life and they marry. It was all just momentarily, like a beautiful dream that you wish will continue forever but then you have to wake up in the end.
From then on, the movie continues like this. They live together but things have changed, some minor footage from their earlier days is repeated but those days are gone. Even when Neil and Marina in a hope to start a new life fills up their home with lots of furniture and things, ends up destroying them in the end because they can't seem to free themselves from love which is there in some ways and almost torturing them for what they have become for each other. I agree that the second half feels quite weak in comparison with the first one and it all seems repetitive. I had problems with that and the movie starts to choke on it self. There is Father Quintana (Bardem) who is perhaps the weak link among all the characters present because his story never actually feels a part of the movie. Father Quintana is battling with his own problems concerning self-doubts, searching for the very existence of God through people that he have created and so on. He performs his duties, he does his daily rounds, listens to confessions but hopelessness and lose of faith seems to be overcoming his very own believes and existence. He has to go on, he does, he is there for the people who needs him while he himself is uneasy and overwhelmed by his feelings. His story never connects with that of Neil and Marina and therefore further brings the movie down. Malick's continuous exploration of love and religion and both their presence and loss increases to a point where if not literally but thematically they starts resonating together and you get his point. You have to love no matter what, you fall in love and you fall out of love in various forms with various things and its simply a duty as suggested by Malick. To the Wonder is filled with beauty of everyday things. Its a unique exploration of love and its lose along with being happy and being unhappy in love. It is messy, erotic, ridiculous, deadly but beautiful. Arguably Malick's most linear narrative feature where you wont be confused because it is very clear to you what is shown and what is said. This movie also happens in the modern time unlike Malick's other movies that are period films.
To the Wonder features excellent cinematography by Emmanuelle Lubezki. The trademark Malick shots are there, the circling and floating, slowly moving camera moments that makes the world look like heaven. He gets even the most common places appear to be heavenly. I don't remember seeing Oklahoma so beautiful in any movie. Even the neighborhood, the very houses looks delicious. When the characters are moving in vast fields of grass or wheat, dancing and twirling around expressing their feelings, he gets them so beautifully. It is experimental and quite abstract the approach Malick seems to be taking with his every "new" film now. The build up of orchestral music along with the lingering and freely moving characters and camera creates a wonderful atmosphere. The shots in many places are fast edited and there are certain jump cuts as well. To the Wonder can also only be viewed for the visuals alone because they speak and show so much. As far as the actors go, Olga Kurylenko gives a brilliant performance. She is able to perform so effortlessly which is quite difficult in a movie by Malick. She has a beautiful and expressive face and gets the twirling aspect right, even if she twirls just too much. As i mentioned previously, Rachel McAdams looks beautiful in the movie and her part is very short. Javier Bardem's character is a misfit while his performance is just fine, nothing great. But the worst performance in the movie comes from Ben Affleck, a terrible choice for a movie like this. To the Wonder in the end is more like a collage of the feelings of being in love rather than a straight away love story. The very joy and sadness that this movie is filled with is something of a rare thing these days. Malick's cinema is not for everyone but those who can open themselves to him just like he did here, you will benefit on so many levels. Art is always divisive, its polarizing, art is more of what you think and feel about something rather than how good or bad it is. Like any movie of this kind, i had my doubts at first and while still its my least favorite movie of Malick so far, To the Wonder is still a gorgeous and emotional movie. Not one of the year's best but still it is beyond anything anyone will accomplish this very year.