Ben Affleck in Terrence Malick's To The Wonder at the Toronto Film Festival

Categories: Film and TV

When Marina's visa is up, she returns to France, and Neil starts spending time with Jane (McAdams), an old friend struggling to maintain a ranch that belonged to her ex-husband. This new relationship is as passionate as the first -- maybe more so, in that its setting is the natural warmth of Jane's ranch, rather than Neil's weirdly empty home, which he seems to be permanently in the process of moving out of or into.

Then Marina comes back, and Neil breaks off with Jane to reunite with her, but it's different this time: uncertainty has slid in to replace delirium. Judging by a shot of their wedding, at which they have no guests, Neil and Marina's love makes them feel like the only two people in the universe, which is initially romantic, and then lonely.

Paradise is lost, and there's no going back -- and Malick makes this clear by stressing that the world these characters live in is right here, right now. Neil's work, which has something to do with environmental inspection (perhaps, like Malick's own father, he's a geologist?) puts him in direct contact with the apparently disadvantaged residents of the area, as does the priest's ministry. In a highly elliptical film with almost no traditional dialogue scenes, these sequences, apparently involving "real" people, are shot and performed with almost documentary-style naturalism.

Malick's camera is so apt to swoon that when he switches into a mode resembling fly-on-the-wall observation, even if just briefly, it's like a bolt of lightning, throwing his vintage, trance-like romance sequences into sharp relief. The typical Malick film takes place in a dream of the past; this Malick film features characters who behave as though they live in a psychological space that predates the Fall of Man -- but they don't. Their natural habitats are drive-throughs and pedestrian-free sidewalks. They're both creatures of this world, and distanced from it: They are members of the species that invented things like mega-supermarkets, that tamed and industrialized the natural world, and yet they can't conquer basic shit like fear and skepticism and desire.

More conventionally structured and modestly mounted than Malick's last film, To The Wonder is never as visually striking as Tree of Life, and Affleck's performance, which is almost silent, is never as dynamic as Brad Pitt's in that film. But his bland hunk beauty suits a character who seems to be solely defined by his inability to give others what they need from him. As far as we can tell, aside from his work, Neil's life is devoted to his literal chasing of women who whirl like dervishes and/or seem to float on air, to playing his part in relationships embodied by two extremes of action: with Marina, love is undulating in patches of sunshine on the carpet like housecats; with Jane it's gazing rapturously at cattle.

In any context other than a Terrence Malick movie, this behavior would be just fucking weird. And by taking pains to ground this action in the recognizable real, Malick makes it even weirder.

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