“An old trick in a new dress is always a pleasant change.” - Harry Houdini
Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” does not tell a revolutionarily original story. In fact, it revisits an age-old staple of story archetypes – of love’s genesis, of love’s lifespan, and of love’s demise. And yet, for exploring such an well known narrative arch, Malick somehow manages to make his iteration noteworthy.
Neil and Marina (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) meet and fall in love in Paris. Neil asks Marina to move back to Oklahoma with him, and she agrees; her young daughter comes along. The environmental shift highlights the first crack of their relationship’s many fault lines: Marina feels out of place and empty, though only her daughter articulates this feeling. Eventually, Marina’s visa runs out, and she goes back to Paris with her daughter, and Neil observes without protest.
Their separation physical and emotional separation is seemingly short-lived, but long enough that in the interim, Neil begins a relationship with an old acquaintance, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Back in Paris, Marina no longer has custody of her daughter and feels even more isolated in her home country. She looks to the US for a fresh start, and Neil agrees to marry her so she can get a green card. While the marriage is strictly legal, the arrangement contributes to Neil and Jane’s relationship ending.
Neil and Marina’s emotions do not reignite initially, but over time the emotions creep through cracks in the walls that each builds against one another during the interim. Love gushes forth again, though both are more sensitive to the overarching realities stacked against their relationship’s sustainability. And like all things beautiful and fragile, their relationship eventually ends, and both go their separate paths in acts of necessity.
Most movies rely heavily on dialogue to convey the passion and pain that comes with every relationship. Not Malick: here, dialogue is nearly devoid, serving as sparse anchors redirecting the current of emotions and storyline Malick’s desired endpoint. Details are quietly present, and long pauses encourage the viewer to infer pieces of information tying everything together. The subtleties and nuances of relationships are conveyed primarily through audiovisual techniques, the image compositions of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and musical compositions of composer Hanan Townshend meshing into a cinematic union. Few narrative facts are spoken throughout the movie, yet the film manages to flow in a manner that feels both logical and effervescent. The result is what the greatest of silent films were able to accomplish decades prior: engrossing narratives by omission of dialogue and amplification of sight and sound. Eisenstein and Chaplin would be proud.