certain preacher was once critiqued by an esteemed homiletics professor
thusly: “Look at this! Look at that! Look over there!”
Well, that’s what Director Terrence Malick does in his film “To the
Wonder.” It’s like an abstract painting on film: a series of
images, a montage of story and dialogue and visual, with emphasis on light and
shadow, dark and bright, delirious with joy and despondent with depression.
As a Director, Malick is like the master chef who specializes in Indian food,
but heavy on the curry spice: after a while, everything that’s served
up has that same distinctive flavor, that kind of overpowers everything else.
Style over substance. Seasoning over solid nourishment. An
elongated Calvin Klein commercial.
Yes, there’s a plot, kind of. But we aren’t really trying to tell a
story here, It’s more like we’re presenting a series of images and
allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks between them. Some viewers,
admittedly, just don’t want to work that hard supplying the narrative.
Not everyone enjoys art work, either, especially of the museum variety, which
usually abounds with intrusive and overbearing interpretation. Here, at
least, the digital collage speaks for itself.
A clean-cut American man, Neil (Ben Affleck) is on a train with a beautiful
European divorcee, Marina (Olga Koryenko), and they’re obviously madly in
love with each other. Obsessed, even. Constant touching.
Giggling. Playful caresses. They literally can’t take their
hands off each other. And they’re oh, so beautiful together.
But life in these United States turns out to be rather plebian. Neil’s
job has something to do with testing for waste products in the environment,
which doesn’t make him very popular with the local populace. Marina
takes her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana, to the local elementary school
somewhere in the hard-baked heartland. But Tatiana is different, she’s
arrived in the middle of the year, she’s still learning the language, she
still has a strong accent, and she has no friends. Olga’s visa has
expired and she has no job, so they both rely on Neil for all their emotional
needs, an overbearing and overwhelming expectation which has Neil running in
the other direction, straight into the familiar arms of old flame Jane (Rachel
McAdams), a single, good-looking young local rancher, who doesn’t seem to
mind that Ben might be on the rebound. Marina, ever the sensitive one,
realizes she is being displaced, and though she would have stayed if he’d
asked her, he didn’t. She returns to France with her daughter, who
then decides she’d rather live with Dad, anyway. Marina can’t find a
job in Paris, either, and begs Neil to allow her to return, and maybe they can
start over, and begin a new family. To most women, this would be a
stunning rendition of “What I Did for Love.” Maybe even despicable.
Though Neil attempts to give Marina what she wants, the truth is, what she
wants keeps changing. She’s a needy woman with lofty emotional
expectations, and everyday life in this stark, bleak, outlying suburb, sitting
in an-almost empty house with little furniture, having no real connection to
the community or much of a social life, much less a job, drives her to cling
harder to Neil, who responds by shutting down. They start to argue, and
to seek time alone. They are both so frustrated, and can’t help but
blame each other for their expectations not being met.
Yes, there are powerful themes of guilt, forgiveness, estrangement, and
redemption, and Malick, unlike other contemporary film makers, is unafraid to
explore the religious dimension. Jarvier Bardem plays Father Quintana, a
parish priest who is also a lonely immigrant, and preaches to an almost-empty
sanctuary, and privately, agonizes over the lack of spiritual passion in his
own life. And yet he dutifully does his pastoral duty, with special
attention to the poor and downtrodden, and there is something inspirationally
powerful in the way that he shoulders his responsibilities even when he’s
not feeling inspired.
Yes, there is a lot to digest in this film, and like the classic Rorschach ink
blot, everyone will see something different. But that’s the artistic
level of “To the Wonder.” What remains to be seen is how large an
audience will wish to avail themselves of such non-linear impressionism.
Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas