To the Wonder: A Beautiful, Beguiling Journey to a Dead End
The trailer for Tree of Life was my pick for best film of 2011. It's visually dazzling, spiritually fulfilling, under two minutes long, and available in its entirety on YouTube. The feature-length version was decent, too, but as an oft-beleaguered, self-doubting Terrence Malick apologist, I found it harder to defend, and it didn't speak to me with the same emotional urgency. To the Wonder, Malick's latest movie, seemed like trouble from the beginning. Even the title evokes memories of the vague, overbearing spirituality that has weighed down his films in the past, and after seeing only a couple moody promotional stills, I found myself mentally assembling a defense for this potential misstep. After seeing the film, I'm not sure I'm up to the task.
Neil (Ben Affleck) returns home to Oklahoma with French girlfriend Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her young daughter. Ennui sets in. Enter Neil's childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), all grown up. Meanwhile, in a thematically but otherwise unrelated storyline, a local priest (Javier Bardem) is enduring a period of spiritual doubt. McAdams and Affleck are questionable casting decisions, and considering that Malick wrote virtually no dialogue for either of them (or for Kurylenko), they must rely almost entirely on body language to develop character. Unfortunately, they look a bit more like props than people, entangled in strange, stilted physical misunderstandings with one another that neither resemble reality nor evoke any known human emotion. In lieu of dialogue, an inordinate amount of voiceover narration is wallpapered over the film, mostly in French or Spanish (with English subtitles), which quickly grows tedious. The film has a bit to offer visually, but fails to top any of Malick's other works here as well. It's clearly a work of unrepentant idealism, and I admire that, but it feels like his search for meaning may be leading us down a dead end.