A typical tale of doomed romance is played out by Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck as Marina and Neil but never before have we seen a cinematic relationship wither like this. With Marina coming away from Europe to continue living with the immoveable, emotionally distant Neil, their love disintegrates amidst a flurry of longings and culture clashes. The idealistic American suburbs see Marina just as out of step as Pocahontas was in The New World, with that situation being reversed this time around. Deep into the film Marina reveals some ballet shoes and we get the impression that she once danced professionally. This explains much due to her often flamboyant movement as she joyously dances through life, something drained from her as her relationship wavers. It's almost disturbing to see Marina's diminishing life-force as this once vibrant and animated woman wanders the streets soul searching as her relationship deteriorates. Kurylenko's performance is captivating throughout and forms the driving force to the film along with Malick and regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki's visceral melding of impressionism and severe candidness.
Loose side stories involving Neil and a former lover's (Rachel McAdams) rekindling, and a priest (Javier Bardem) who provides solace for Marina and whose voice-over dominates a large portion of the film feel weak in comparison to the tortured dynamic between the film's central couple. It's also notable that Christian Bale was originally set to play Neil and in knowing this highlights a possible weakness in the casting of Affleck, a fine performer nonetheless but one who can't compete with Malick's artistic sensibilities. Whereas Bale would undoubtably portray strong emotions visually with ease, Affleck lacks the chops to do so, though in some way this merely adds to the unknowable opaqueness of Neil's character. The audience is then kept at a distance just as Marina is throughout.
To The Wonder pushes all the elements inherent in past work and surely won't earn Malick any new followers; with another visual, emotive journey in favour of a narrative one, full of wanting voice-overs, expressive psychical performance over verbal conversion, and an overwhelming sense of worldly beauty. The experience will fall into either pure cinematic ecstasy or total exasperation. One thing must not be denied, however, is Terence Malick's ambition as he continues to reinvent cinematic grammar and unashamedly expose his heart and experience into his work. He is still an artist unequaled in cinema today.
Reading this 1998 article from Variety may just reveal just how close to home To The Wonder may actually be to Malick and may cast some light on the film in place of this mythic figure who refuses to discuss his work in public.