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Something Nice to Say: The Case for To the Wonder

Article by: Abigail Marshall

 

Everyone’s heard the line before: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. “Something Nice to Say” is a column that takes another look at “certified rotten” movies and finds a redeeming quality in each one.

Perhaps it’s necessary to clarify that To the Wonder isn’t Ben Affleck’s fault. Coming off lackluster reviews of the recent Batman v Superman, Affleck’s probably doing his best to avoid recalling his mute and bewildered performance in Terrence Malick’s 2012 indie romance flick. In this case, To the Wonder is largely Affleck’s attempt to make the best of a film for which there was no script. “I didn’t know what was happening,” he said in a surprisingly candid interview with GQ. “…My character doesn’t really do that much.”

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Now, To the Wonder is admittedly laden with countless beautiful almosts. The film becomes infinitely better when scenes are viewed individually, out of the context of their loose narrative. There’s the baptismal car wash, a strangely sexual supermarket excursion, and countless sweeping long shots of locales that definitely weren’t filmed in California. Even an extended shot of bugs crawling on a wall becomes art in Malick’s hands. To the Wonder is an undeniably gorgeous film, but narrative clarification occurs only in fleeting subtitles and the movie was ultimately spurned for its “unsatisfying” storyline, resulting in a critical consensus of 46% on Rotten Tomatoes.

My argument for To the Wonder centers on viewing “around” Ben Affleck. (In other words, just kinda don’t pay attention when he’s onscreen.) Downplaying Affleck’s role transforms the film into a compilation character study of two women and a priest, rather than the “experimental love story” it was marketed as. Each of the three are dealt their own internal crisis, with their thoughts artfully relegated to a different language. Olga Kurylenko’s Marina chases freedom, while Rachel McAdams’ Jane seeks to regain the mother and wife roles lost in her past. Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, confronted with the everyday horrors of humanity, has lost faith in the God he champions and yearns for the strength of his old belief.

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It’s not a film for fans of closure, as none of the characters we follow get exactly what they’re looking for (and I’m still wondering where the hell McAdams ran off to). But Bardem in particular shines in his role as a disillusioned priest, with the thematic overlaps between romantic and spiritual love consequently marking the strongest points of the film.

I’m still not entirely sure of the story Malick wanted to tell, but perhaps that doesn’t have to be a strike against him. Is To the Wonder the story of Marina’s liberation? A chronicle of Neil’s reluctant strides towards familial responsibility? The beginning of Quintana’s split from the church? The absence of a definitive takeaway is arguably refreshing in a sea of films with heavy-handed messages, as To the Wonder‘s final conclusions are ultimately left up to the viewer. It all just depends on what you’re expecting from Saturday night Netflix.

Abigail Marshall
Abigail wants to live in a world where coffee is free and everyone who writes "you're" means "you are." When she’s not holed up at her university’s newspaper office, you can find her drinking coffee while reading someone’s memoir or drinking coffee while planning the soundtrack for her next road trip (but really, this one’s gonna be life-changing). A writer by trade, she blogs at abigailwashere.com, tweets from @thefirstabigail, and never leaves a bookstore empty-handed. She recommends reading her writing while drinking coffee—but you might have noticed a trend by now.

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