When Terrence Malick's sixth feature premiered last year at the Toronto
International Film Festival, movie blogger Brad Brevet called it "The Tree of Life 2." Watching the film, the end credits include a title that says footage from The Tree of Life
was used here. The same cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was on hand
for both films, so the footage could have easily been integrated without
any one the wiser.
If this film could be called a sequel to any of Malick's works, I might be tempted to call it a sequel to The New World (2005), or, if not a sequel, then a remake. That film depicted Captain John Smith and his love of Pocahontas after his arrival in Virginia. At first, John Smith, played by Colin Farrell, finds himself a stranger in a strange land with a woman who doesn't speak his language. Yet, they find a way to communicate.
The same happens in To the Wonder. At first, Neil, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself a stranger in a strange land with a woman who doesn't speak his language. Instead of Native American, the woman here is French by way of the Ukraine. Her name is Marina and she's played by Olga Kurylenko. She's a single mom with a prepubescent daughter called Tatiana. She's a young mother, having been pregnant and married while only 17. Despite having this responsibility, she's still very much a child herself. She is very playful. Neil capitulates, but clearly he's a more serious person than her.
In The New World, Pocahontas is also playful. She's also very much a free spirit. Yet, she becomes involved with the English settlers and eventually moves to England to live and be a kind of ambassador. In To the Wonder, Marina too leaves her homeland and moves with Neil to Oklahoma, so both characters in both movies become strangers in strange lands. The theme of assimilation isn't as pronounced here as it was in The New World, but faith and the meaning of love are very much so.
Like with all of Malick's films, nature is very much pronounced as well. Yes, Malick opens with digital video and we see Neil and Marina on a train bound for and past Paris. Later, we see them walking the streets. Malick's camera floats behind and around the couple, and even as they enter "The Wonder," which is the nickname for the Mont Saint-Michel in France, one wonders if Malick is more fascinated with architecture.
Yet, quickly Malick has the couple outside and beside the Mont Saint-Michel where a muddy beach is slowly subsumed with water writhing over the rippling, almost rubbery surface. The sky is overcast, signs of it being cold and wintry. Malick then cuts to the couple in Oklahoma where the couple isn't in thick coats but thin T-shirts against brighter and warmer colors, but, like its writhing over the beaches of France, water is a key element even in the Midwest of the United States.
Malick's camera loves to follow and it loves its low angles and wide lenses where he's constantly looking up at people and the sky. With his curiosity of water, one assumes he might look up at the rain, but he doesn't. Malick's film is less concerned with the water in the air but with the water in the ground.
The majority of The Tree of Life takes place in the 1950s, except for the scenes involving Sean Penn, which occur in present-day America. It marked the first time a Malick film had present-day scenarios. To the Wonder marks the first time a Malick film has been entirely in the present-day and in no way does Malick make that evident than in his first scene, which is filmed initially on a video camera.
The characters in The Tree of Life, those in the 1950s, couldn't and didn't investigate scientifically big ideas like the origin of the universe or more down to Earth issues like water pollution. Setting his film in the present-day allows Malick to introduce those kinds of investigations. For example, Neil returns to his job in Oklahoma where he is involved with environmental concerns. He visits an oil refinery and places where drilling is occurring. He also visits people, poor residents near the refinery and drilling who are affected, and listens to their troubles and fears of pollution.
It's interesting because Ben Affleck's friend and co-winner of the Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting (1997), Matt Damon, did a film recently called Promised Land (2012), which also dealt with water pollution. Malick's film avoids dialogue, so it's not about debating the problem. In fact, Ben Affleck's character Neil mostly listens to the residents complain and worry. Neil has no answers or even an argument.
Javier Bardem co-stars as Quintana, a Spanish priest in Oklahoma who meets Marina in church when she becomes disillusioned about life in America. He obviously shares her immigrant status. Yet, Quintana is like Neil in that he also visits the poor residents and listens to them. He on the other hand is supposed to have answers, answers that Neil doesn't and probably could never have, answers from God, but that's in question. Malick frequently frames Quintana as a lonely man, not just socially lonely but feeling alone, as if alone from God as well.
It's not as if Quintana has totally lost his faith or has left God, but there is a question if god has left him because one asks if he is lonely or empty for some reason, and why. Malick incorporates the idea of people who are left alone for some reason or another. All the characters get left alone at one point.
Rachel McAdams plays Jane, a woman who was left in more ways the one. Her husband leaves her with a bankrupt ranch to run alone. Jane's daughter even dies. When that happens, she like a lot of people falls back into things they've known in their past, that are familiar to them and latch onto those things to feel safe or comforted.
To the Wonder is like a documentary only involving actors. Malick's cinematography and editing are beautiful, natural and flighty as usual. His characters are all left behind in way or the other. It's a love story involving people who might not know how to love and who may need to fly free. Affleck and Kurylenko are sexy on screen as Malick briefly gets sexual for the first time himself.
Malick has always seemed so fascinated with the past. The Tree of Life even went as far back as to the creation of the universe with a brief layover in the dinosaur age. Instead of looking behind, with To the Wonder, Malick seems to be looking forward. That's not to say he's all that optimistic or hopeful. That's also not to say that he's pessimistic. As evidenced in The Tree of Life, things in this world are cyclical. There's an arc, and I think with this film he somewhat communicates that arc.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some sexuality/nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 52 mins.
Available on iTunes while in theaters.