To the Wonder
Release date: April 12, 2013
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay by: Terrence Malick
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
It’s hard to define Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder as something concrete. It has a narrative, but a loose and relentless one that never settles down to fit traditional structure. Just as The Tree of Life attempted to capture the beauty of living, and arguably succeeded, To the Wonder attempts to capture the overwhelming nature of love, in all its beauty and horror.
“We climbed the steps to the Wonder.”
We are presented a couple, Marina (Kurylenko) and Neil (Affleck). Their romance is blossoming the same way we’ve all experienced at some point, wild and exciting with no hint of trouble. Mont Saint-Michel, known as the wonder of the west in France, embodies pure happiness for them, but as soon as they leave the pristine lands, the harsh reality of the world begins to dawn upon them.
“You thought we had forever. That time didn’t exist.”
There’s this never-ending disconnect between Neil and the women he loves. How do we ever know if he truly loves them? Is he terrified of finding a truly meaningful connection? We see the world through the women more often than not, and it’s a world of heartbreak. It’s a world overflowing with the idea that love is more than just the obligation that we feel for another.
“It is so strong, this conviction that I belong to you.”
The idea that we’re bound to this feeling of love is one of the most impressively explored in To the Wonder. Even when Neil begins to experience happiness with another woman, Jane (McAdams), he feels obliged to care for the woman who impacted his life so powerfully once. His love for her has changed, but he is tied to her regardless.
“I thought I knew you.”
Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki have a specific way of framing these characters in certain scenes that emphasizes that distance between them. They are close enough to convey familiarity, but the negative space of the sky lurking in the background provides a gap between them that can’t be filled by all the hopes and dreams in the world. The disconnect within a relationship is not limited to lover and loved however. Child and parent, man and faith: these are the relationships that move us as beings, even when we feel that they’re apart from us.
“I want someone to surprise me!”
Each person we follow, in whatever limited manner, has an incredibly desolate view of the world at some point. Bardem’s priest travels to broken homes and prison cells, but even in his own home, a house of worship, he finds no place he belongs. In helping people, he hopes that he finds the connection he’s desperately searching for. He hopes for some meaning in his life, something that will knock his boots off and remind him that God exists. It’s this search for something new, something to lead them back to the wonder of love, that drives them.
“Intensely I seek you. My soul thirsts for you.”
We hope to reach this metaphorical wonder, to maintain that feeling of pure love that we once had. We strive to have a perfect relationship when it isn’t possible. We lose our faith in love and succumb to emotions that we never knew existed. To the Wonder moves from love in its purest form to love in all its destructive power.
“How had hate come to take the place of love?”
Heartbreak pollutes these dreams of a pure romance. We watch as Malick shows us polluted ground, tearing away the beautiful scenery that he has shown before. No words are needed to express the pain these people feel, and Kurylenko and McAdams are truly adept at emoting here.
“Love is not only a feeling. Love is a duty. You shall love. Love is a command, and you say, ‘I can’t command my emotions. They come and go like clouds.’ To that, Christ says, ‘You shall love whether you like it or not. You fear your love has died, it perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher.'”
In this film, Terrence Malick has further expressed more of what he has likely experienced in all those years he was gone. He weaves an emotionally rich tale, not through dialogue, but through a visual assault that reflects the world he’s witnessed like no other. He understands that people, and the world, change endlessly, but there remains the hope that we will still love those who change before our very eyes even in the midst of that disillusion. It is doubtful that there will ever be a man as talented as bringing out the poetry in cinema like Terrence Malick does, and To the Wonder is yet another beautiful testament to that fact.