To The Wonder is Terrence Malick’s weakest film. It is also his most poignant. Throughout its 112-minute running time, Malick not once allows his scenes to breathe, nor does he allow his characters any prospect of enlivening – and that is exactly the point. The characters stride and ponder, and they brawl and wrestle with their thoughts and desires, yet not once do they feel loved by their creator.
It is not long until the vacuum felt by the characters begins to haunt the audience as well. The quiet American, Neil (Ben Affleck), constantly searches for familiarity, for affection, and yet whoever comes his way, whether it is Marina (Olga Kurylenko), his romantic yet disoriented Parisian lover, or Jane (Rachel McAdams), the plain country girl he has known since childhood, he merely finds himself dwelling back into his reticence, unable to feel what he has sought in the arms of his partners.
Marina also fluctuates between love and lovelessness, unsure of what it is that could truly make her happy, and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest, is constantly grappling with his faith, as he insentiently moves from house to house and street to street, helping those in need. He asks his God for a mere sign, just to prove to himself that He exists, that he isn’t just pretending, that his life has not been for nothing. Yet he receives no answer, but he carries on with his pastoral duties regardless.
It is a beautiful world Malick has created, but it is also an empty world, a world without love or faith. Blue skies and wondrous oceans do not make up for how small these people feel as they saunter lifelessly through fields and empty streets and as they bemusedly clutch at whatever they can keep hold of – whether that be God or man or woman.
Father Quintana gives sermons to a half-empty church every Sunday, not because of his unalloyed devotion, but because he is alone, and he knows full well that without his faith, he is nothing. Neil and Marina clash violently and make-up just as violently. Their relationship is in disrepair. Yet they just cannot disengage, and even when they do, it is not very long until the other returns, doting, repentant, and deprived. They cannot let go of this very thing that defines them (“What is this love that loves us?” Marina asks at one point), because they know, just as Father Quintana knows, that they are nothing without it. When Neil leaves Jane for a returning Marina, McAdams’ character downright disappears, as if she had never existed to begin with. She becomes a ghost, one that neither haunts nor roams, but just wanes and fades away. This could be the fate of any of these three characters, Malick seems to be telling us: They will wind and fade without this love, without this wonder.
Every character in To The Wonder is in search of something that could define them, something that could give meaning to their existences. Yet Malick doesn’t allow them this tranquility. They are condemned to a life of wonder. They are forced to fight themselves and each other. They are to leave and they are to return. They are to come close to denouncing their idols and ideals, and they are to atone every single time. Because without their faith, their lives become menial, and they quite literally begin to sink in a world that is too complicated for them to understand. Never has Terrence Malick made a more pessimistic film, and never has he made one as affecting.