The vast open spaces and banal housing developments of Oklahoma serve as a stultifying downer for the vivacious Marina, and the relationship deteriorates, but To the Wonder’s greatest failure is that this is not some tragedy to be lamented. Even in Paris, Neil is not a high-energy individual. Whether that’s a character choice or Affleck’s inability to convey passion, the effect is a complete non-investment in his character, especially compared to Marina who he is plainly not compatible with. Malick often makes his female leads frolic and flit through tall grass or beaches, but never more than here. Marina comes across as impossible to spend time with, as it’s nonstop whimsy and eccentricity with her, or at least until she’s childishly pouting. Nothing in Malick’s filmography to this point has been less compelling than this forced relationship between the intolerable and the uninterested.
Supporting Neil and Marina is Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, a local priest who serves as a possible inspiration for Ernst Toller in First Reformed. Quintana’s lost his passion and is going through the motions, perfunctorily saying Mass and counseling Marina. Bardem’s hangdog affect is more convincing than Affleck’s similar one, but the reason for his presence is unclear. As he films all things, Malick captures the subjects of Quintana’s charitable work with the love and affection of magic-hour lighting, perhaps in a thematic push to illuminate the capacity for joy and purpose in the service of others, but Quintana’s arc remains unfinished by the credits. More integral is Rachel McAdams as a romantic alternative for Neil. She’s a less insufferable grass-frolicker than Kurylenko, but this relationship too fades into the background, an accurate if acinematic depiction of how someone with Neil’s joyless existence might be unable to be with people.
To the Wonder is superior to the drudgery of Knight of Cups, Malick’s follow-up, but the seams are showing for a director who previously had an impeccable record. There’s nothing he can do to erase the majesty of The Tree of Life or Days of Heaven. Maybe Malick needs to take years-long breaks between films to return to fighting weight. The takeaway from To the Wonder is that Malick’s got a superlative return to form in him that spends more time in France than ten minutes of a two hour film. C