To the Wonder

Or the tedium, whichever comes first.
★★★
☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Terrence Malick
Starring: 
Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
The Setup: 
Man can't commit, women dump him.
Discussion: 

So surprise, it's a new Terrence Malick movie. So soon! The guy who once went decades between films is now on a streak. And it looks like a vague continuation of The Tree of Life, but maybe a bit more focused on romantic relationships, rather than family relationships, about which I want to know what Terrence Malick has to say! Then the reviews come out saying it's sort of aimless and wan, but you think maybe they're just missing it, maybe it's just too subtle for them, and lots of people didn't like Malick's films the first time around anyway. But then you go see it and find out the critics were pretty much right. It's aimless and wan.

We open with Affleck as Neil and Olga Kurylenko as Marina on vacation around France's Mont St. Michel, that beautiful abbey on an island. They walk around. It seems to be deserted. We hear Marina speaking in French, with subtitles, the kind of vague Malick-speak about where they're going (hint: to the wonder), and how they feel. Affleck says almost nothing, but the foreign language helps the whole thing stay dreamy and intuitive. They walk in the sand flats around the place as the water flows in with the returning tide. Then they're in Paris, with Marina's daughter Tatiana, as Marina says that it's okay that Affleck won't marry her, "we'll just go a little of the way together." She clearly needs access to the Huffington Post and "ten signs he'll never marry you" and "six ways to recognize commitment-phobic men."

He asks her to move to the United States with him, and again, a little Google search might have prevented all that we're about to see. She ends up in the vast flats of Oklahoma, where she is suddenly in these huge empty suburban rooms in a large flat subdivision, vast and empty and boring. They go through a large Wal-Mart-type store where she and Tatiana marvel at how clean everything is. Soon Affleck is checking out another woman in a bikini, and their relationship is having trouble, so naturally, they get married. Or at least it seems like they do, although they go on to get married twice more.

In here we've also met Javier Bardem as a pastor who seeks a real sense of God's presence. He wanders around, seeking God's presence. He shows up every now and then throughout the movie, seeking God's presence, but never really having much to do with anything (on the literal level, ha-HA!). Meanwhile Affleck seems to be involved in some sort of environmental testing. We see him taking soil and water samples. Soon Marina wants to go back to Paris and Affleck sees her and Tatiana off.

Soon he meets Rachel McAdams as a bible-thumpin' beauty who chills with the buffalo and seems at home on the plains. They marvel at the views from her bluff-top ranch, but soon she realizes that Affleck ain't the marrying kind, and she makes a few pained faces before vanishing from the movie. By then Marina has started to feel lonely in Paris, and started to wish to come back to Oklahoma! Clearly her mind is in some sort of mixed-up trance state, as obviously it's better to be lonely in Paris, where one can sigh in despair along the banks of the weary Seine, then go to the Musee D'Orsay, rather than stuck in the spiritual emptiness of vacant Oklahoma with her emotionally-distant beau, but what can I say? She is the Patty Heart of our time. She comes back.

Around this time, you can see where this is going, and know it's nowhere good. Which made me a bit emotionally-disengaged and starting to get annoyed with Marina. Oh yeah, European free spirit who spins and skips through Wal-Mart aisles, but throws emotional huffs and embarks on a seven-step passive-aggression initiative, weeping, throwing things, affectionate, wandering in spiritual starvation among the highways of cars, flirtatious, furious, back and forth, back and forth, so of course--they get married! Again. Or something.

Amazingly, all of their problems are not solved. Marina sleeps with some prairie dude at a roadside motel. Soon she's back at home where the screaming fights, throwing things and wandering outside to shout to the neighborhood that she's unhappy begin a new round, mixed with showy unserious suicide attempts and maudlin attempts to clean up the after-fight detritus. And by this time my patience and willingness to view this as an expression of the search or meaning in a soulless universe was worn to a nub. Perhaps due to the fact that I'm not straight, the whole "bipolar hot-but-crazily impulsive and emotional foreign chick" thing doesn't appeal to me, and at a certain point when Affleck lets Marina off by the side of the highway I was like "Good call!"

The movie ends (SPOILER!) with Marina going back home where she can twirl in her own woods and lick the dew from Gallic trees (not kidding), leaving Affleck closed off in his emotional prison--where it seems he's doing just fine and probably better off--and Bardem still waiting for God to konk him on the head.

So yeah, I know I'm supposed to be all reverent and ponder the deep, serious issues, but I stopped caring, and the serious issues didn't seem all that worth investing attention in. Another review noted that this is Malick's first film set in contemporary times, interesting, but nothing about it spoke to me about contemporary issues in a way that felt rich or insightful. It also managed to burn through whatever confidence I may have had that Malick HAD something to say. And as for relating everybody's relationship yearnings to Bardem's spiritual yearnings: whatevs. Don't care.

So don't believe me if you don't want--I wouldn't, given Malick's strong track record up til now--but maybe he should start thinking about the other benefits taking several years between films might have unintentionally offered. This one feels rushed, empty, and half-baked.

Should you watch it: 

No, watch The Tree of Life. If you've seen that, go see Upstream Color instead.