To the Wonder (2013)
4/10 Broken Commitments
So this is how the masses felt after The Tree of Life.
To the Wonder is about an American man and a Ukrainian woman who fall for each other at Mont St. Michel, so much so that he asks her and her daughter to live with him in back in the States. So they move to Oklahoma where life is a lot more boring, and before long, they find themselves falling out of love. She and her daughter eventually move back to Europe while he begins developing feelings for a local woman he once knew in his youth. Next thing you know, the Ukrainian gal is moving back in as they try to give it another go. All the while, a local priest tries to rekindle his own relationship with God, and that ain’t going too well either.
Sounds like a Terrence Malick movie alright.
Folks, I don’t even really talk about it in anymore, but believe it or not, I liked The Tree of Life. Once upon a time I would have said that I really liked it, but alas, it just never got any easier to defend those goddamn velociraptors. And while everyone is more than entitled to their own opinions on the matter, the fact remains that I’m still quite fond of it even after all we’ve been through. It’s still difficult to explain why I like it without alienating myself and sounding like a full-blown movie snob in the process, but what sticks with me most are all the ways in which it was so wonderfully different from anything else I’d seen in recent memory. It managed to accomplish something that was both larger than life and universally human, and it was special, dinosaurs and all.
And while the upside of To the Wonder is that there isn’t a prehistoric predator in sight, the downside of To the Wonder is that it has the same lofty ambitions. As you’ve likely gathered from the Verdict up there, the results aren’t quite as successful.
Whereas Malick’s last movie was about, well, everything really, the main focus of To the Wonder is that of love and all its mysteries. Then again, don’t quote me on that, because no two viewings are alike when it comes to these Malick pictures. Either way, anyone who’s ever been in or out of love can tell you that this sucker has no shortage of material to work with.
After all, love is a pretty mysterious thing, one that even history’s greatest wordsmiths haven’t been able to describe with true clarity. And when this story starts out, love is all around, love is contagious, love is simple. It’ll make you uproot your life without thinking twice, it turns men in fathers, girls into daughters, lovers into something more. It’s undeniable, it’s uncontrollable and the thought of it disappearing never crosses your little mind. This is how it always starts.
Unfortunately, the good times don’t last for long in this story as much of it is spent meditating on the bitter side of what was initially so sweet. What starts as a story about “Yes!” eventually becomes a story about “Why?” As in, “Why do people stay in failing relationships?” and “Why do people fall out of love?” The double-edged sword of these questions is that as relatable and timeless as they are, they are questions without answers.
And I don’t mind that, as I wasn’t expecting Terrence Malick to suddenly drop the knowledge that our bleeding hearts have been searching for all this time. After all, it’s only natural to want to explore that which can’t be explained and it probably would have been worse if it were answers that he started providing. But what I do mind is how he goes about his exploration, painting us a constant reminder that the J. Geils Band was right all along, that love does in fact stink.
If you haven’t experienced it in some form or fashion, count your blessings, because watching someone you care about fall for someone that doesn’t deserve them is just torture. All you want to do is shake ’em around and hope they come to such an obvious realization, but since you don’t want to risk losing a friendship, you bite your tongue and hope for the best. Oh yes, it sucks. But even if you haven’t experience it on a personal level, it can still be awfully infuriating. Take Chris Brown and Rihanna for instance. These are two people I ordinarily wouldn’t care less about, but the fact that they’re still together after what he did to her is enough to make my blood boil. Not to say that the relationship between the two leads in To the Wonder is at all comparable to that of the world’s worst role models since Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, it’s just that it sucks to watch.
By and large, this is what To the Wonder is driven by: me, helplessly watching on as two people I didn’t care about kept leaving and returning to their increasingly toxic relationship. Not only that, but I also got to helplessly watch on as a priest tried to salvage his relationship with God in light of the pain and suffering of those around him. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t get any answers either. I get the connection between the stories and it’s an inspired (albeit inconsequential) one at that, I just wish there had been more substance to support the style.
As the trailer will show you, not only does To the Wonder deal with a lot of the same grandiose themes as The Tree of Life, but it also bears an awfully strong visual resemblance. Same sweeping cinematography, lots of similar imagery and there are times when it’s enough to make you drool on your shirt. The one big difference is that The Tree of Life was more about the man behind the camera than the people in front of it. That much was clear from the start and made it that much easier to forgive the lack of character development along the way. To the Wonder, on the other hand, is all about the people in front of the camera, only the formula hasn’t adjusted. As a result, I felt like I barely got to know these people, and even after witnessing their ups and downs with one another, they were still strangers to me by the end of two hours.
I don’t need to know everything that’s going through their minds, I don’t need to know anything about them for that matter. However, it would have been nice to see them portrayed as real people going through real crises rather than placeholders with voice-overs. You look at something like Badlands, a movie that revolved around two utterly fascinating characters and features some of the most striking visuals you’ll ever see, and I can’t help but long for more. It’s just hard to appreciate the way Malick approached this movie as it only serves to detract from what could have been an achingly human story. As a result, it left me bored, frustrated and frequently uninterested, and that’s just bad business.
I just wish I had felt something for these characters, even if that something was a firm disliking towards them. Make my blood boil, make me want to scream, because the last thing I ever want to feel in a story like this is numb. But so it goes.
By now it should go without saying that if you didn’t dig The Tree of Life, you won’t be digging To the Wonder. But as someone who digs the hell out of Terrence Malick, it was disappointing to discover something so terribly muddled and repetitive beneath such an absolutely gorgeous surface. Bully to Malick for aiming high, bully to Malick for doing his thing, but if there’s anything at all that I’ve taken away, it’s that there’s something to be said for getting back to basics. Love may stink, love may be mystery, but regardless of what it is, it should at least feel alive.
Can’t win ’em all, Terry. Can’t win ’em all.