The Tree of Life director Terrence Malick has created another love-it-or-hate-it movie with an unconventional storytelling approach in To the Wonder, though no dinosaurs appear this time (see Jurassic Park 3-D instead for your paleontological fix). Ben Affleck stars as Neil, an American who falls for Ukrainian divorcée Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while visiting Paris. Neil invites Marina and her young daughter to relocate to his hometown of Bartlesville, Okla. Things are great between them...until they're not. Marina decides to move back to France when her visa expires, and Neil reconnects with former flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). Things are great between them...until they're not. Wondering what Wonder is really about? So are we, and we've seen it! Prep your brain with these helpful facts:
1. The Unkindest Cut of All: Malick has a history of excising actors from his films during editing. Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, Mickey Rourke and Billy Bob Thornton were all involved in The Thin Red Line, but did not appear in the final cut. He trimmed Adrien Brody's Red Line role down to almost nothing, but Brody didn't find out until he was publicizing the film. Ouch. For To the Wonder, Malick shot scenes with Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Jessica Chastain, but they all ended up on the cutting room floor.
2. Pretty Pictures and People: Malick's films are known for transcendentally gorgeous cinematography and lyrical images of nature. The director ups the glamour factor by casting ravishing actors—from Richard Gere in Days of Heaven to Colin Farrell in The New World to Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life. To the Wonder continues that beauty trend: Affleck, Kurylenko and McAdams are all easy on the eyes, while Javier Bardem as a conflicted priest makes having a crisis of faith look muy caliente.
3. More Than Just Learning Lines: To prepare for To the Wonder, Affleck read works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also watched movies starring Gary Cooper to help shape the earnest character of Neil, whom Affleck calls "the silent center" of the film. Perhaps if he had more dialogue, miscast Affleck wouldn't look so uncomfortable in the role. Bardem fares better as the brooding Father, and his research involved talking with actual priests, prisoners, and Bartlesville residents, who shared their tales of hardship, including drug addiction and poverty. Additionally, Malick had Kurylenko attend church during the filiming because her character is a church-goer.
4. We Don't Need No Stinking Stories: If you thought The Tree of Life was too jam-packed with plot, then this is the flick for you. As Affleck reportedly quipped, To the Wonder "makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers." More visual poem than standard narrative, Wonder bears the trademark Malick touches—beautiful visuals, experimental structure and philosophical voiceovers. It may also be the reclusive auteur's most personal film yet, as Malick grew up in Bartlesville, lived in Paris, and married and divorced a Frenchwoman. Perhaps To the Malick would've been too obvious.
5. What's in a Name? At the beginning of Wonder, Neil and Marina are at the height of their amour. They frolic on the rocky beaches of Mont St. Michel, the island abbey off the coast of Normandy. A top destination for pilgrims and tourists, Mont St. Michel is known in France as the Merveille or "Wonder." The old-world setting not only provides the film's title—it's also thematic to Malick's explorations of God, spirituality and love. After seeing Wonder, you'll want to put Mont St. Michel on your travel bucket list—Bartlesville, not so much.