The plot in brief: Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American traveling in Paris who meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a woman raising a 10-year old daughter. During their whirlwind romance, Neil invites the two ladies to move back to Oklahoma with him. They all go. In Oklahoma, Neil is some sort of an environmental inspector and Marina spends her time getting herself (and her daughter) acclimated to their new life in the US. After a while, their relationship deteriorates. Neil’s old girlfriend Jane (Rachel McAdams) then re-enters his life. In the B-story, a Catholic priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is having a crisis of faith.
The Tree of Life is a good place to start. It was my number two movie of 2011. The whole middle section of that movie (with the kids, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) really got under my skin. I felt like I was uncomfortably a fly on the wall of this family’s life. To the Wonder should feel like that, but insteadfeels a lot more like the end of The Tree of Life, where you are up artist’s creek without a compass. I don’t know why Malick is so intent on alienating his audience in his movies. In the name of capital ART he is sacrificing what should be great drama.
Another movie To the Wonder reminds me of, to Malick’s detriment, is 2001: A Space Odyssey. To the Wonder deals with long stretches of gorgeous photography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who also was the cinematographer for Children of Men, Sleepy Hollow and The Tree of Life) and more relaxing classical music than you can shake a fist at. Just like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there are no uninteresting shots in To the Wonder. In both cases, Kubrick and Malick want you to have an emotional experience first and an intellectual one second. The long stretches of music and images without plot progression are intentional, because they want you to feel first and then have extra time to bring your own thoughts to the movie. In 2001, this is exceptionally rewarding -- I’ll ponder existence, space, man’s place in the grand scheme of things, what happens to us after we die, etc. In To the Wonder I trail off and think things like "Does Terrence Malick think HE’S G-D?" (more on that later) and "I have no sympathy for Ben Affleck’s character -- "Boo hoo! Olga OMG Kuyrlenko loves me too much."
Okay, now for the elephant in the room: Terrence Frederick Malick. To the Wonder is supposedly based on his own life experiences. Malick, like Affleck’s character, had a relationship with a woman in France, married her and moved back to Texas with her. They later divorced and Malick reconnected with an old girlfriend. The movie and the true life story diverge some, so don’t consider this a spoiler.