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To The Wonder (2012)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

A good friend and filmmaker described To the Wonder by saying, “It’s the film around the film.” The description is apt. It’s storytelling is unconventional and, in this way, it is like director Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and his earlier films. Only more so, and to strong effect. Viewers should expect its dreamlike, vignette-centered storytelling to be a different sort of film experience. This is good, but it requires of viewers a go-with-the-flow approach based first and foremost on observation and intuition rather than being carried along by the action.

Neil meets Marina in Paris, that city of love and, as in a fairy tale, it’s wondrous. She takes up his invitation to come live with him in the American heartland, her young daughter in tow. He works investigating toxic waste. Having no green card, she meets neighbors and tends to the house and child. The wonder continues — until it’s clear that it doesn’t. They struggle. They search. Others come into the story, including a girl he knew years before and a priest adrift in his faith. The story might happen 1000 different ways. It’s been told in 1000 different films. And all through the stories runs a thread of emotions — a thread we can lose in the details. In a counter-intuitive way, To the Wonder works by keeping the details from interfering with us fully connecting to the emotions of the story. Running time: 112 min.

If the introduction just above has you wondering what you’d be in for with this film, then you’re in the right place. It’s not that Wonder provides no details, it’s that it’s crafted, through selective detail, to draw from the story a different set questions. We see Neil and Marina joy together in the beauty of a grand landscape while her voiceover obliquely alludes to the broader arc of their story, so rather than getting lost in a moment’s lie about forever, we ask: How is it that this moment contains its own death? We see them arguing without hearing the words they say, so rather than siding with one or the other, we, more intensely feeling the pain of the moment precisely because we are disconnected from the details, ask: What does it take to break the cycle of argumentative cause and reaction? Instead of Wonder’s selective detail distancing us from their story, the film connects us more deeply with their story — and with the 1000 other stories.

The net effect of Wonder’s filmcraft is that it takes us through the emotions of the story with a greater intensity and indelibility than if it were told in a traditional manner. A typical well-made film connects us with emotion through its focus on specific detail. Malick somehow focuses differently, as though emotion were a visible thing to be centered in the lens. The detail that Wonder provides comes largely in a panoply of images from the sublime to the mundane to the ugly. Whether of landscapes or people, commercial enterprise or house of worship, things man-made or natural, the film’s moving and still images flow like music across the story. Similarly, the actors’ jobs are to embody images more than to speak, and they do so well.

Because Malick executes Wonder’s style of telling so well, he is able to carry it through the whole of the film. We wouldn’t want for all films to be done full-out in this style, but Wonder, Malick’s other films, and a few films like them by other directors are forming an important extension to the language of film, wherein watching the film is more like reading poetry than reading prose. Thus, a quote from a noted Canadian literary critic and theorist sheds light on how Wonder is working:

If Wonder’s filmcraft has a downside, it has nothing to do with its overall poetical aesthetic. Rather it would be one aspect of its telling that cuts two ways: the majority of its spoken words are in voiceover. Most of the voiceovers interact lyrically with the film’s images, building on their poetry. But at times, they can lapse into prose as the film brings in elements that aren’t carried in the images. In Malick's defense, they are elements that are quite challenging to carry in images, so on the whole, he deserves strong praise for extending the language of film as he is doing — despite the fact that many critics don't seem ready to engage with the film on its own terms.

By aiming to tell us more about "what always does take place" than about "what happened," To the Wonder wants to deeply affect our souls for the better. I find that it does just that, and for me, there's hardly a better way to spend one's time.

To the Wonder is in places intense with emotion, particularly anger. On the whole, content concerns are light, but the film does have a couple of sexual scenes with brief, moderate nudity.

  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Screenplay: Terrence Malick
  • Leads: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline
  • Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
  • Music: Hanan Townshend


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