Terrence Malick has cultivated something of a reputation for long-winded "profound" movies (namely The Tree of Life). His most recent effort, To The Wonder, is no exception. Presumably intended to explore the inevitable breakdown of love—the manner in which it withers and dies—the movie frequently borders on overkill with its "arcane" theme. Overall, To The Wonder amounts to a nonverbal series of frolicking and fighting scenes. When Neil (Ben Affleck, who utters maybe all of three sentences throughout the entire film) meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) on a holiday in France, he falls in love with her instantly—which is where a lot of the running and frolicking comes in. Although Marina has a daughter, it doesn’t prevent Neil from asking her to come with him back to his home in the Southwest. It is this change of environment that begins the trouble and the contention, essentially leading to the film’s thesis, “How had hate come to take the place of love?”
The answer to this question can be viewed as simple or complicated. The simple answer is that love and hate are two very similar sentiments constantly at war with one another; the complicated answer is that all relationships are arbitrarily affected by a particular set of circumstances. Perhaps in the case of Neil and Marina, it’s a combination of both, though it’s difficult to tell as Malick relies solely on sweeping visuals to give us any sort of concrete information. It is in this way that Malick is either a genius or an asshole in making his audience feel as though they are the daft ones for not being able to extrapolate the correct meaning from a series of Lifetime-esque scenes.
Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is also an enigmatic character in To The Wonder. Devoted to spreading the Bible’s message, he is accused of being lonelier than anyone who is without Jesus in their lives. Constantly preaching about the difficulties of love and how easy they are to overcome if the two people in the relationship would just accept Jesus into their hearts, Father Quintana is quite possibly the most annoying character in the story. Nonetheless, he is one of the few people that Marina can turn to for comfort in a town that is as isolated as she feels. To make matters worse, her daughter begins to resent Neil for presuming to act as though he is her real father. The pressures and tensions are further compounded when Marina’s visa expires and Neil still feels uncompelled to marry her.
While Marina is back in Paris, Neil is allowed the chance to reconnect with a woman from his childhood, Jane (Rachel McAdams, who has more dialogue than anyone considering her brief stint in the movie). As the two grow closer, the memory of Marina seems to grow fainter. It isn’t until she expresses how miserable she is in Paris to him that he starts to think about her again. Now that Marina's daughter has gone to live with her real father and she is at a loss when it comes to finding a job, Neil takes pity on her and tells her to come back to the U.S. After informing Jane of his decision, she seethes that he has reduced what they had to nothing, just another tawdry, meaningless affair.
With Jane out of the picture, Neil devotes the time to working on his relationship with Marina, ultimately deciding to marry her. But, with nothing but each other to focus on, they begin to argue more often, losing the love they have with every new outburst of vitriol. Marina gradually begins to view Neil as a weak, callow person, unwilling to end their marriage even though he knows it’s what needs to be done. Taking matters into her own hands, Marina consciously decides to cheat on Neil in order to break from his shackles. After she tells him, Neil caves into the divorce, still remaining noble enough to escort her to the airport. The final line they exchange—and the final line in the film—is Marina saying, “I’m keeping your last name.” Whether that is her sentimental homage to their rapport or a spiteful way of saying that she’ll always hold on to a piece of him (or possibly a mixture of both) is up to the viewer to decide.
The main issue with To The Wonder is that it attempts to be an experimental film about love. But, in general, it comes across as trying too hard to deliver a message that could be just as easily told through a conventional format, as opposed to snatches of scenes with minimal dialogue. Though, admittedly, in real life, couples tend to speak very little as time goes on, so, in that respect, Malick has earned his due for the realism of this movie.