I moved to Oklahoma when I was twelve, having spent most of my childhood living in a fairy tale-like, forested plot of land in Bennington, VT. I went from woods smelling of pine—a yellow layer of needles carpeting the ground—to the smell of burnt grass and occasional pockets of death (there was always something decaying by the side of the road, buried in the underbrush). I lived in Southern Oklahoma, in the mountain ranges that extend from the Ozarks in Arkansas. A few hours north, the landscape becomes more typically Oklahoman: wide expanses of flat fields, cattle, and McMansions, trailers in rows or circles on treeless lots. I hated both the tangled woods of our home and the flat, featureless landscape of Northern Oklahoma; I couldn’t see the beauty of it. The culture of rodeos and church potlucks and families gathered for high school ball games was lost on me. I missed our family’s ten acres in Bennington, which, despite the difficulty I’d had in school, had been a refuge for me. But as a surly teenager, Oklahoma felt like a pit that I had to climb out of.
That feeling, being stuck in a place I hadn’t chosen and didn’t understand, made me want to travel. When I was finally able to go overseas, I visited France—specifically Paris, Normandy, and Mont Saint-Michel, an island just off the coast of Normandy that features an eleventh-century monastery, which can be reached by taking spiraling steps up to the top of a mountain. When I went to France, I thought I had finally found some place as beautiful as my memory of Vermont was. I had, I decided, been starved for beauty, and it had made me ugly. I determined that, as soon as I could, I would get the hell out of Oklahoma.
To The Wonder, Terrence Malick’s latest film, begins at Mont Saint-Michel. Two lovers, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), run up to the top of that same mountain, kiss in the garden in the abbey, and then run along the edge of the ocean as the tide comes in. Marina, who has a ten-year-old daughter from an ill-advised marriage at nineteen, provides a great deal of narration throughout the film—you could fairly say that it is her movie, despite the fact that we never learn all that much about her. We hear about how much she loves Neil, and how happy she is when he asks her to come back to the U.S. with him. When they arrive in Oklahoma, Marina and her daughter marvel over the clean and plentiful grocery store aisles. They dance in the poison-green lawn of their new, enormous, empty home.
I haven’t lived in Oklahoma in about ten years, but I visit yearly to see family. The annual drive down, now familiar, has endeared me to the area: once I no longer felt forced to live there, it became nostalgic—and once it became nostalgic, I could find a way to love it. The landscape has remained essentially the same, aside from a few new convenience stores, but, as the years go by, I’ve started to notice the beauty in that wide expanse of sky, those deserted stretches of highway, all the small towns in Southern Oklahoma where the bait shops sell the coldest beer in town along with miniature bibles on key chains.
To the Wonder shows Oklahoma in the ways I’ve learned to see it in the decade since I’ve left—beautiful, expansive, and empty. The sky in Oklahoma is enormous, the fields endless, the lawns moist and green. Malick shot the film’s Oklahoma scenes in Bartlesville, a town north of Tulsa, and manages to make the treeless lots of manufactured homes look somehow both tragic and elegant. While France is filmed largely in the rain—all greys and blues—Oklahoma is full of bright sunshine, grass, and fiery sunsets. The empty spaces become almost overwhelming, like a constant open-air cathedral. Marina admires it, but cannot completely feel part of it. In the second half of the film, her sister visits from France and says as much: this place is suffocating.
But Marina’s alienation also stems from her relationship with Neil. He has not asked her to renew her visa. There is talk of marriage, but Neil doesn’t seem to make a move. A woman watering her oversized lawn says that it must be hard for a “single mother” like Marina in a new country. Her daughter Tatiana, who doesn’t fit in at her new school, remarks that “something is missing here.” We do not know what Neil feels or thinks, but his physical presence feels distant, wandering in and out of Marina’s embraces. Despite the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of the everyday scenes in the house, something is wrong.
And this is where I began to grow restless with the film—I’d had my fill of nostalgic beauty and vague whisperings by the thirty-minute mark. Malick, too, seems to sense that the Neil/Marina relationship is growing tiresome; the plot, such as it is, soon shifts. Once Marina’s visa expires, she and Tatiana return to Paris, leaving her relationship with Neil unclear. Neil quickly takes up with Jane (Rachel McAdams), who seems to spend a great deal of time running through wheat fields and twirling her dress. We learn that Jane and Neil knew each other in the past, and that she, too, had a child, although her child has died. Like Marina, Jane doesn’t have much of a personality—or any life, really, beyond loving Neil (though to be fair, it’s clear throughout the film that Malick isn’t all that interested in character development).
Neil and Jane have a short romance, which ends when Marina returns to the U.S., this time without her daughter. It is not entirely clear if Neil invited her, or even if he is happy that she has returned. They resume a kind of dance around each other, despite an exchange of wedding rings and visits to a fertility doctor. Jane disappears completely from the movie. Because the film jumps around so freely in time—and because it is unclear exactly how long Neil and Jane were actually together (it takes about fifteen minutes of screen time)—her exit seems rather painless and pointless.
While Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life (2011), utilized a similar fluidity of time, lack of overt dialogue, and beautifully gauzy shots, the stylistic choices seemed to support the story. The Tree of Life tackles the strange journey from childhood to adulthood—the ways in which our parents both shape us and provide us something to push against; the convolutions of memory; the difficulty of forgiving ourselves for not knowing as children what we learn to see clearly as adults. The nostalgic, swirling, fuzzy cinematography serves to reinforce the idea that memory is filtered, imperfect, and constantly being reinterpreted.To the Wonder, in contrast, sometimes seems almost too pretty, too gauzy for its own sake, too focused on surfaces. Instead of adding to the story being told, it instead serves to highlight the lack of compelling interaction between characters, causing this to stand out all the more, a black hole at the center of the movie. There is scarcely a single moment of believable passion, affection, or anger expressed on screen in To the Wonder, but an inordinate amount of time is spent gorgeously showcasing the aesthetics of Jane and Marina’s accoutrements and household décor. How many shots do we need of these women twirling around in pretty dresses with attractively disheveled hair? And when they aren’t standing in fields, orbiting around the silent, blank face of Ben Affleck, the women in To the Wonder are perpetually waiting in empty rooms for him to return, running their hands across curtains and dancing through rooms. Yes, these shots are beautiful, but they are also numbingly repetitive.
The voice-overs used throughout the film, too, reveal another flaw: these women seem to want nothing but to settle down with Neil and be assured that he loves them, expressing this desire through whispered, fevered diary entries. While the actresses do their best with the material (Olga Kurylenko, in particular, infuses Marina with a kind of passionate intensity that seems slightly unhinged), the trite inner monologues that Malick gives them often come across as comical instead of meaningful, almost a parody of themselves.
While I appreciate Terrence Malick’s willingness to eschew character and try to tell a love story in a different way, in the end his reliance on beautiful images only manages to elevate the film so far above any semblance of everyday life that it becomes increasingly difficult to connect with any of his the characters. I felt angry at Marina and Jane for being such pushovers. I felt frustrated with Neil for being such a boring cipher. And I felt disappointed with Malick for lavishing such gauzy detail and rhetorical bombast on a relatively simple love story about a trio of people who don’t seem to have anything all that profound to say.
And then we have Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, who comes into the film to tell Marina and Neil about the love of God and to show us the unfortunates of Oklahoma—drug addicts, single mothers in trailers, etc. He speaks about how the love between man and woman can be like one’s love of God. The Neil and Marina story is, I think, supposed to be a kind of metaphor for the relationship between a person and God, or a parallel story about the difficulty of sustaining that immediate, intoxicating feeling of “being in love.” Unfortunately, I found it hard to care about Bardem’s doubting priest, because he is not really a character—simply a voice speaking over swells of strings—and the connection between the couple’s love story and a larger point about God seems rather tenuous.
I appreciate Terrence Malick’s ability to make beauty out of the stuff of everyday life: dust floating through the air; curtains rippling in the breeze; the white, uniform walls of manufactured homes. But what I wanted from this film was not only to see the beauty of love, but to understand the difficulty of love’s bonds. Yes, the world is beautiful, and difficulty is beautiful, and struggle is beautiful, but at times I would have liked as much insight into Marina and Neil’s lives as I got from the snippets of conversation between Bardem and the unfortunates of the Bartlesville area. Those people—teenagers cradling babies, older men and women, often toothless, talking about their lives—seemed infinitely more interesting than either Neil or Marina.
There is no happy ending. The relationships in the film are all left in liminal states, and there is no final affirmation about the love of God or true love between people. Unlike The Tree of Life, To The Wonder leaves the viewer in a space of ambiguity. Like the rest of us, Marina has to go back to what her heart wants and what her intuition tells her. For a director who seemed almost overtly Christian in his previous film, this is a brave place to let the movie fall. I wish, though, that the rest of the story had been more emotionally gripping; I, too, wanted to feel the pain of losing faith in the love of both God and man.