Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
By Roderick Heath
My journey from Terrence Malick sceptic to devotee has been surprisingly smooth, whilst admitting Malick’s signature flourishes can still provoke tendentious reactions, especially if one doesn’t entirely share his obsessive touchstones and specific brand of spiritual yearning. But it’s a rare thing in this day and age to see a great and fearless artist at the height of their craft, and Malick has moved into a zone all of his own as a maker of experimental films for a world stage, blithely selling semi-abstract art films to a mainstream cinema scene littered with cash-cow franchises, self-inflated provocateurs, and duly sincere indie films. Once Malick had a certain amount of company, but now that Stanley Kubrick’s dead and Martin Scorsese’s moved into his emeritus phase, Malick feels like the last remnant of the American New Wave still working in an argot of deeply personal yet fulsomely conceived cinema. Actually, he’s not quite the last, as Monte Hellman’s and Francis Coppola’s patchy but fascinating re-emergences have proved, but they’ve accepted their status as marginal figures, scrappy doodlers in the corners of popular cinema, whereas Malick still has worlds to conquer, and no time at all to sit and weep.
Conceptually, at first glance at least, To the Wonder is a minor grace-note by comparison to his artistically mighty The New World (2005), which studied the terrible beauty in the meeting and sundering of civilisations, and The Tree of Life (2011), a psycho-metaphysical treatise. The Tree of Life reversed Malick’s fortunes after the flop of The New World, though he seems to have pulled that off by bludgeoning a good percentage of its audience into confused respect through the awesomely beautiful conceit of drawing links between the genesis of the universe and the state of the individual consciousness as expressed through a young boy. To the Wonder, his follow-up, has been paying the price, but To the Wonder isn’t a lesser film than The Tree of Life: in fact, in many ways, it’s superior, certainly in terms of structure.
To the Wonder has its share of Malickian canards: lithe-limbed female forms stretching hands to the holy sky and dancing across the fertile earth, shots at eye-level moving through tall grass and up through trees to the bounteous sun, and fragments of pseudo-poetic voiceover that suggest a high schooler’s first stab at philosophical musing. The slightly self-satisfied, inverted focus in Malick’s earlier films, studying human violence from on high like one of his inscrutably photographed birds, has given way to a newly voluble contemplation of humanity in the face of a universe it once happily assumed revolved around it, but now knows is powered by awesome enigmas and dizzyingly remote forces. Malick, as in The Tree of Life, tackles a distinctively Christian ethos and ponders its connection to any individual’s sense of basic motivating forces—the push toward others and the internal battle of base and noble impulse. But there’s an abstracted quality as well to Malick’s consideration which keeps well out of the zone of simple religious screed; the angst and questioning and fear of the void are in there, too. The sun, which Malick always uses as the closest thing to a holy object, is remote as well as bounteous, as taciturn as any Egyptian or Aztec rock carving, and pray to it all you like, you’ll still have to find your own sense of glory. The title To the Wonder points to a conflation: the wonder is both a real place, the monastery on Mont Saint Michel on the Normandy coast, and a metaphorical one, the numinous binding state of love, romantic or private, divine or communal. Early in the film this hemispheric sense of love is spelt out in voiceover, united in compelling splendour but driving in different directions, and eventually links to a series of binaries: new world and old, man and woman, commitment and freedom, city and country, industry and nature, individual and community. Malick, however, has a distinct disdain for the simplicities of binaries, insofar as that whilst charting them, like a good Taoist, he also constantly hints at the unity of opposites.
To the Wonder is a necessary and in many ways revelatory addendum to Malick’s recent films, in part because it drags his concerns at last into what is more or less the present, and it provides, in William Blake’s parlance, Songs of Experience to The Tree of Life’s Songs of Innocence, engaging substantially with adult love for the first time since the pastoral noir of Days of Heaven (1978). Where femininity in Badlands (1974) and The New World was adolescent and protean, transitioning from one state to another whilst scarcely in control of itself, and ethereally maternal in The Tree of Life, here Malick at last gives us women, or at least “women.” There’s a healthy carnal joy repeatedly displayed in To the Wonder, however briefly, mixed in with the rhapsodic dances and plaintive poeticism in taking on one of the hoariest of all storylines, the romantic triangle, and doing impossibly original things with it. The film’s opening scenes, captured in the smeared and grainy tones of a digital camera, are a blurry whirlwind of familiar traveller’s epiphanies: glimpses of famous artworks and exciting places, snatches of movement, rest, and happenstance romance. Malick’s film proper begins by connecting things: we see our man and woman, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), running, dancing, and standing still in Paris, the beauty of the foreign and old equally dazzling for both the stranger and the local when looked at through the eyes of romantic bliss, rediscovering the world.
Malick’s tale here is very simple, essentially a framework to hang his epiphanies minor and major upon, but it should be said that Malick’s story is, in terms of plot, no more or less substantial than dozens of cinematic love stories and situational studies: the distinction lies in Malick’s approach to the material, essayed as an immersive study in the ebb and flow of feeling and the way our interior voices constantly try to comprehend our often arbitrary natures. Neil meets Marina, who has multiple musical talents and seems also to be a dancer, on holiday in France. Marina and her young daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) move from Paris with Neil to the American Midwest. Malick’s desire to animate sensatory engagement between human (or emotional/mental/spiritual) and natural worlds (a realm of immutable facts, but eternally malleable contexts) has here reached something of a climax: his characters are not just characters but figures in a landscape, and the same goes for his landscapes, which are never free of an actual or implied observer or interacting presence, not just scenery but aesthetic tools. Many directors would settle for picture postcards of Mont Saint Michel in filming a romantic vignette there, but Malick uses it expressively and, yes, to use that most dreaded of critical words, symbolically. He gives us the hypnotic and unsettling sight of the tide slowly trickling over the causeway as surely as fate, and attunes to the hushed and ageless atmosphere of the cathedral interior, cold stone and timeless reverence as a forge for ephemeral, hot-blooded attraction between a man and woman.
The shots of the sand being slowly overwhelmed by the tide are repeated: it evokes both a strange, liminal horizon as echoed in the end times parable in The Tree of Life’s finale, and the process of solitude being supplanted by coupledom. Such is an incremental process and one, at least as far as To the Wonder essays, never completed: the tide washes over, but also retreats. The ebb and flow of affection, desire, curiosity, and misgiving between Neil and Marina is perpetually described by their positions in relation to Malick’s camera. Many descriptions of what Malick’s attempted here have summarised it as a kind of extended dance. The metaphor is perfect, and not just because of Marina’s constant recourse to dance as a means of expression, but because of this studied look at the way humans express without words. Marina’s physicality is a perfect contrast to Neil’s quiet, ponderous study of the world around him. Neil’s job tracking the environmental impact of industrial work is sufficiently lucrative and not so time-consuming that he can’t devote himself to life with Marina, except in the finite shadow of guilt and fretful contemplation that passes over Neil’s features as he confronts angry residents affected by his works and regarding the spreading pall of civilisation on the landscape. Malick seems here to be thinking of his father, who was a geologist. Neil communes with nature in a practical and modern fashion, and becomes the willing ear to the fears of people seeing the damage wrought upon their landscape by the incessant march of modern industry. But Malick’s ecological perspective, his stricken regard for humankind’s problematic relationship with its world, is posited through less an argot of earthy pragmatism or conscientious propaganda, than as another aspect of the same basic schism the rest of the film studies, a problem of inner nature.
Mostly, therefore, Malick’s exploration of the eternally contradictory bind of humankind’s relationship with its environment is expressed through everyday phenomena: places of living, business, shopping, worship, and the land beyond the fence, not quite wild, but not exactly subdued. Critic Stephanie Zacherak’s jab at Malick, that he never met a tree he didn’t like, neatly deflated the dippier side of Malick’s flower-child sensibility, but it fails to appreciate Malick’s relative disinterest in standard dramatic portraits and his way of utilising an intensely personal iconography of images that gain in importance as he returns to them. Landscape is never just landscape to his eye. To the Wonder as a title points to a specific structure, but Malick is fascinated throughout by human works, structures, abodes, labours, as functional and also as philosophical phenomena; the “wonder,” a pinnacle of historical efforts toward uniting earth and sky, humanity and god, is only a visual gateway to an exploration of modern, secular expressions of the yearning to balance contradictory desires and embrace beauty in the unlikeliest contexts. The sacred grandiosity of the seaside church segues into the neon-gilded gas stations burning in kaleidoscopic beauty, temples of fluorescent light and islands of humanity in the midst of churning traffic. Tract housing and small-town architecture looms dark and megalithic, communing with the sky and encompassing human dreams even in their arbitrary, inorganic newness, as if dropped in the middle of vast spaces. Supermarkets are dazzling cornucopias, to which Tatiana responds by dashing through the aisles rejoicing at “how clean everything is.”
Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film the spare and spacious beauty of the Midwestern landscape and the populations spread upon it with the same weirding, refamiliarising wonder turned on iconic European culture. A couple of Malick’s most breathtaking shots are studies in human abodes in natural contexts: one offers the houses of a suburban street, a cul-de-sac abutting recently conquered pastoral land where Marina and Neil reside at one point, under the rule of snow and blasting wind, the modern houses suddenly plunged into a medieval winter. The second is subtler and quicker, photographing the remote farmhouse of Neil’s childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), with her and Neil within in warm light and the twilight rural landscape without, an image rife with evocative colours and contemplation, and one that captures the atmosphere of modern rural life more intensely than all but a few other examples I’ve seen. Home is a powerful notion for Malick: he loves his homeland, and he feels the sacrosanct aura that many invest in the places they have sprung from, evolved in, and left without forgetting, a note that pays off later in the film. Marina is struck at first by her New World as a place of bounteous space and riches, but, in one of the film’s scenes of extended dialogue, Marina is visited by an Italian friend, Anna (Romina Mondello), who decries the emptiness and false faces of the locals whilst encouraging Marina to return to her free-spirited ways. Whilst such familiar conflicts are invoked, as Marina is alternatively dazzled and alienated by the profundity of space, the disposition of the people, and the thinness of the cultural blanket about her, Malick himself avoids value judgments. Everything is endowed in his eye with both value and transience. Paris is depicted at first as a place of infinite riches, but when Marina returns there, it seems by comparison an oppressive labyrinth crammed with people, noises, and distractions, a stygian space of excessive civilisation.
After her visa expires, Marina returns to France with a willing Tatiana, and Neil seems content to let their relationship end: as Marina had said earlier to Neil, “I don’t expect anything. Just to go a little of our way together.” This is very much the film’s founding thesis, as a study in just how far people can go together. After Marina’s departure, Neil turns Jane, who is dogged by the melancholy memory of her young son’s death several years earlier and a disintegrated marriage. Jane possesses a veneer of wariness that hides both great potential ardour and dark reaction, each of which Neil experiences. The movement that encompasses Neil’s interlude with Jane is brief but represents one of Malick’s greatest achievements, a synergistic flow of images and snatched words replete with an almost fairytale beauty and rapturous expression that I knew even as I was watching it was a masterpiece of film shooting and editing. Malick makes his disparities obvious without recourse to explanatory dialogue: Jane, framed repeatedly with the horses she tends and bison, is, like them, native product of an open land, endowed with a robustness and rooted self-certainty even in the face of tragedy, plucking away at work on the ranch in the face of hardship, in contrast to Marina, who tends to run from hardship. This is no simplistic good woman/bad woman schism, however, as Malick explores the appeal and necessity of both temperaments, and Neil, in spite of the seeming ease in his relationship with Jane, is fatefully drawn back to Marina’s mercurial nature as an invigorating contrast and partner to his own.
Just as Neil and Jane’s relationship comes to life, Marina contacts Neil, wanting to come back to him after giving custody of Tatiana to her ex-husband. Neil breaks off with Jane, in spite of her ardent and slightly pathetic offer of herself with one of her tethering ropes for the horses wrapped around her own wrists, but quickly enough she’s thrusting Neil away and quite literally crawling away from him in forlorn anger. Jane is last seen in a dreamlike discursion as she moves through what seems to be her childhood home, a dark and cavernous space that conflates with Neil’s house, a place where Marina hovers outside like a dogging spirit. Jane climbs stairs and disappears into darkness in a relay of shots that capture the trio in a moment of transition standing at thresholds, on different floors, and beyond windows, all with telegraphed psychological meaning. Jane’s fragmented odyssey feels vitally important as she retreats from the frontier back into an Oedipal space of the home, the reverse journey of the main character of The Tree of Life.
The haunting qualities of the old prairie houses Malick perhaps spent much of his youth in, their cache of faded gentility and piquancy suggested in Badlands, is recalled here, charged with a vividly haunted sense of lost security and longing. This segues into Neil’s attempts to settle down with Marina, cueing one of the droller moments in any Malick film, as they have their marriage witnessed by a prisoner waiting his turn in court. Marina and Neil take some time to reconnect, but they soon passionately reunite. Marina immediately begins to strain against her newly settled life and the lack of sensory excitement around her, and finds herself engaged in a war between her affection for Neil and hate, lividly described in a pool scene as Neil and Marina’s playful, tactile delight in each other is suddenly stricken with her apparent offence and loathing. There’s a Dostoyevskian quality to Marina’s plight and struggle within herself: “What a cruel war!” she says at one point. Taken with a carpenter, whose slightly damaged look exacerbates his precious attractiveness, Marina finally, seemingly deliberately detonates her marriage by sleeping with him.
Malick is a poetic filmmaker, but not in the usual vaguely lyrical fashion. He takes a methodical approach to refashioning persona and parochial experience into a system of shared experiences, essentials, and universal observations, inner experience turned into communal dreaming. The only measure for success in this is the degree to which it can strike others with a sense of recognition, and in this To the Wonder worked for me. I received a jolt of recognition in Malick’s feel for the evocative wonder of some commonplace sights and experiences, like his study of newly built tract housing which plunged me back into my early years in a sprawl of new suburbs that seemed to hover on the fringe of invaded farmland, contrasted with the shaded hominess of my grandparents’ houses in a more settled and traditionalised locale, and his already noted attentiveness to the moods of rural and city environs. One great late scene finds Marina, after committing an act of infidelity, reeling along the side of a busy road and reaching a large intersection, boiling with traffic flow, light and engine noise, a crucible of existential angst, and indeed the sensation of force and danger at such locations is transmuted into a moment of ecstatically immediate emotion. Malick’s finite sense of the way personal affection is communicated through touch, proximity, attitude, is exacting, as he can find the pain and confusion in even the smallest and briefest moments when a lover turns away, and the relief when they come back. The payoff for this sensitivity lies in the most eruptive moment in the film, when Neil smashes the rear-view mirror of his car and drags Marina out of it to leave her on the roadside after she confesses her unfaithfulness, a moment that becomes an apocalyptic gesture.
Malick’s sensatory ephemera are woven in with his actual drama, part of what he’s trying express in an ontological fashion. To the Wonder is a concluding chapter to Malick’s grand foray through American history, which has already encompassed its birth, its intermediate schism of industry and rural existence, its elevation in WWII to superpower in existential crisis, the false security of the 1950s, and now finally, the present, still stricken through with the same fault lines of its birth. One aspect of Malick’s world view that feels almost radical is not just his hunger for mysticism in a secular, earthbound age, but his plaintive affection for a particular brand of provincial religiosity found in his homeland’s vast middle spaces, the sort usually caricatured as a fount of bigotry and bellicosity. As hinted in the film’s early scenes, the central romantic drama is eventually counterpointed with a spiritual drama. Marina is stricken with her exile from the church because of her divorce, attending local services and explaining her problem to local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Quintana, in turn, is beset by his own crisis of faith, a sensation that his sense of the binding properties of god, spiritual love, a world spirit, has abandoned him and left him as a social undertaker preaching to near-empty halls. He pursues his mission, however, venturing out into the poor districts of his Midwestern parish, trying to offer succour to the ruined people on the fringes of this society. A mark of Malick’s generosity is that he can take a sight most filmmakers would turn into a sneering portrait of First World dissolution, a large man snorting beer from a foam dome amidst the wreckage of a home, into a perversely beautiful depiction of ruination and degradation.
Quintana at once has ardent love of his job as knitter of social fabric but also feels its crushing weight, manifest in striking moments, as when he receives the despairing appeals of prisoners, one who kneels before him longing for a sense of forgiveness and others on the far side of visiting pen glass, and when he hides within his house from a gnarled drug addict who first rejects his aid and then comes seeking it, as if he’s hiding from faith itself in the fashion of biblical heroes like Jacob and Noah. That Quintana and Neil are brothers in their searching sensibilities is signalled late in the film when Neil and he are glimpsed in confabulation, and Neil follows Quintana in his daily rounds, each one a tragically beautiful adventure into human frailty. Malick’s characters are engaged in a kind of wrestling match with their individual nature and their animating force—personal ardour for Neil and Marina, maternal crisis for Jane, godly love for Quintana. Quintana regains his, oddly and implicitly, through the entwining of Malick’s images, via the experience of Marina and Neil losing theirs, as he suggests that in the sundering of individual love lies the essence of the greater kind.
Like Malick’s best films, To the Wonder gathers accumulated force in grand gyrations until it hits crescendos. It’s entirely fair to describe Malick’s structuring in musical rather than stage terms, and he encourages it often by tethering his various interludes to upsurges of specific music. To the Wonder then works in five movements. As a film, it feels unique in Malick’s oeuvre in the sense that it’s extremely autobiographical and revealing not just of personal experience but of artistic influence. Although The Tree of Life revealed Malick as another acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, here the influences are broader. The Searchers (1956) is repeatedly invoked with Fordian framings on the rolling prairies with bison and horses and characters in doorways, except that Monument Valley has given way to McMansions. David Lean is most often evoked: in the scene of Marina and Tatiana leaving Neil alone and the suddenly solitary male dashing back through his house to watch their car depart, Doctor Zhivago (1965) leaps to mind, and Lean’s feel for landscape has never seemed more clearly influential on Malick than here. Much like Lean’s concept of the poetic hero of that epic as more watcher than engaged in history, haplessly locked in love affairs whilst ideology reshapes the world aggressively, similarly here, Affleck’s Neil says little, acting as more the fulcrum for the dramas of his women than protagonist. Like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), To the Wonder can be described as a kind of character study where a level of frustration in the inability to actually penetrate the character is a definitive aspect of the narrative. Thematically, particularly in the form of Father Quintana’s diary of a suburban priest, Robert Bresson feels vitally close; indeed, he was probably in there all along.
But Malick’s closest creative relative as an American artist may not be other filmmakers, but rather Andrew Wyeth, a realist painter who nonetheless offered such intensely studied, obliquely conceived pictures that they always seem to vibrate with a sense of hidden elements and forces. In much the same way, Malick constantly alchemises images into emotions, which is the very aspect of his films that remain hardest for the more literal-minded to grasp. To the Wonder does represent another stage in his vision, however, if only because here Malick firmly hints at real experiences that have become inseparable aspects of his artistic imagination. Marina feels like the final condensation and archetype of the female who’s flitted through his last four films in variations, childlike but not childish, ethereal but also sensual, wounded but not ruined, perpetually enticing and yet bound to slip through one’s fingers. Marina’s neurotic flightiness and possible overtones of a developing mental illness, are distinctly suggested, as in later scenes her actions become increasingly less coherent. After they’ve separated, Neil goes to visit her in the apartment she’s now keeping and finds her idly cutting pictures out of books. Yet the final sequence of images suggests that far from spinning off into bleak realms, Marina remains an icon of unfettered life. Affleck’s face, never the most expressive of actorly instruments, becomes here Malick’s Mt. Rushmore of stolid American virtue, or perhaps an Easter Island statue, but Affleck’s flashes of good humour and play give Neil sufficient life. But the essence of the film is Kurylenko’s performance, quite an epic piece of actor’s art in spite of Malick’s odd way of shaping it, as she finds the underlying unity in Marina’s perversity. Perhaps this is the interesting contradiction in To the Wonder that’s made it Malick’s least rapturously received film so far, but that also makes it a great achievement nonetheless. Under the surface, which pretends to the usual beatification at the end, it’s a flailing, pained study in the impermanence of things.