To the Wonder

May 14, 2013

To the Wonder Grade: A- Director: Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) Screenplay: Malick Cast: Ben Affleck (Argo), Olga Kurylenko (Oblivion) Rating: R Runtime: 112 min. by John DeSando “You got me out of the darkness.” Marina (Olga Kurylenko) “Newborn” is the first word of To the Wonder. Light and darkness are two of Terrence Malick’s many motifs that inhabit his bag of themes about loneliness, otherness, and the business of living happily. In Wonder, darkness is of the soul, mostly Neil’s (Ben Affleck), whose Ukrainian girlfriend, Marina, wishes to lighten it. “Newborn” is how Marina feels before reality sets in. As writer/director Malick traces the arc of their relationship, in which she yearns for his love and about which Neil remains taciturn, Malick paints, as he did in Tree of Life, a world of images that reflect back on the lives, an abstract aura over a dark reality. When the couple is in Paris, each image is a richness the City of Light offers. When they move to Oklahoma, the sun frequently glistens at dusk over the fields, giving a golden hue that belies the couple’s growing emotional poverty and highlights the relative bareness of mid-western small town life. It isn’t Paris, after all. But this isn’t a story of desperate immigration; it’s about the migration of souls to places that exact payment for every moment of light. So universal is Malick depicting the loneliness of the soul that even the parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), is alone in his thoughts of a nun now gone from his life. While Bardem is underused here, the role helps to highlight the frustrations of living that even the sacred cannot help. As in 2011’s The Tree of Life, Malick is interested in the existential meaning of the individual life; in To the Wonder, however, he has a more linear story, more rooted in mundane disintegrating love and the challenges of immigrant life. Still, he casts most of his images in painterly strokes, as if bringing Wyeth’s Christina from field to home. That home, typical of Malick, is barren of furniture and adornments, a minimalist shrine commenting on how place reveals soul. The protagonists never seem settled, nor are their lives. Turning back always to Marina’s longings, Malick reminds us, as he did with The New World’s Pochahontas, that spirituality is best left unspoken: little is said in this film, much more being said with Marina’s gestures reaching for the sun and Neil’s staring through windows at vacant yards. Despite the despair, the film is a visual and metaphorical feast, as long as you accept the painter-filmmaker. There’s no grand reunion as at the end of The Tree of life, just the realization that life doesn’t always work well. Marina hoped at the opening: “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness. You gathered me up from earth. You've brought me back to life.” Although it doesn’t quite work out that way, Malick has caught the melancholy beauty of living with all its ironies. John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel. Contact him at