Review by Bob Ignizio
Generally speaking an artist should follow their muse wherever it may lead. In the case of director Terrence Malick, however, his muse seems to have led him straight up his own posterior. There's a fine line between rich, complex, and challenging works like Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE, and THE NEW WORLD, and utter self-indulgent pretentiousness. It's a line Malick first crossed for me in his previous film, 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE. He crosses it again, and even more egregiously, in TO THE WONDER.
The film begins with impressionistic images of Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck), a couple who have just met and fallen in love. Over the visuals, Marina offers breathy narration in French in which she says things like, “love makes us one, I in you, you in me.” The relationship progresses, and eventually Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chilline) come to live in Oklahoma with Neil. Things seem to be going well, but Tatiana senses that something is missing.
Evidently so, as when Marina's visa runs out Neil doesn't even see her Tatiana off to the airport. It doesn't take Neil long to hook up with Jane (Rachael McAdams), a farm girl he used to be in love with. Eventually that goes south as well, opening the door for Marina to come back into Neil's life, but this time as his wife. Meanwhile, local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is having a crisis of faith, finding himself no longer able to connect with his God.
For about two hours, these characters meander about whispering their dialogue as we see little snapshots of their lives. It's all shot beautifully, but as gorgeous as the film looks it doesn't take long to become tedious, and at times even laughable. Malick has his female cast members spin and cavort at the drop of a hat (almost invariably while wearing cardigans) so often that it becomes ridiculous. Perhaps making a drinking game out of the film would make it go by more pleasantly (she's spinning – take a drink!). Just be sure you don't have to drive anywhere for a while after. And then there's the scene where Marina gets relationship advice from her friend Anna (Romina Mondello) who shouts and gesticulates while offering up such gems as, “Life's a dream. In dream you can't make mistakes. In dream you can be whatever you want.”
The central theme of TO THE WONDER is that love changes and fades and transforms over time. The film illustrates that well through the romantic love between Marina and Neil, the maternal love between Marina and Tatiana, and the spiritual love between Father Quintana and his God. The problem is we feel no connection with any of these characters as real human beings. Without that, why care? In turn that makes it harder to overlook the way all the relationships in the film just go from one state to another without us ever seeing the reasons why. One minute Neil and Marina are in love; the next they're smashing their furniture. The result is a pretty looking film with a potentially interesting theme that is unlikely to engage the interest of most viewers enough to get its ideas across. 2 out of 4 stars.