Terrence Malick’s latest addition to an increasingly prolific canon is this beautifully dark masterpiece. I think it’s in fact Malick’s “darkest” film. Here there is no “grace”, like in Tree of Life, nor is there the comfort of the family bonds, nor is there the spiritual rebirth, as there was in the previous film. Gone also is the pat, matter-of-factness that so characterized his early films, like Badlands and Days of Heaven. Even the uplifting moments found in The Thin Red Line, or The New World are not really there, as what beauty there is seems to be negated by the next disappointment. This is a story of doubt, of loneliness, of longing for something that cannot truly be grasped, and perhaps even more so, the mistrust of one’s one feelings and desires. This is not the same final tone that his other films leave you with. There is something darker here that he is expressing, really for the first time in this way.
Malick’s film involves a few parallel storylines. In one, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fall in love in France, where he brings her back to live in his home in the U.S. Soon, their love devolves into a confusing swirl of emotions and dissatisfaction. They split and she returns home. He meets up with Jane, a girl he knew in High School and they have a short fling, and she ends up heartbroken. Soon, Marina returns from France, without her daughter. The Neil and Marina marry and seem to be rekindle the love they once had.....briefly. But, the dissatisfaction creeps back in. In another storyline occurring in the same town, a priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) wrestles and struggles with his faith and his ability to “see” God. He continues to pursue his calling and his work, but his heart is not in it. He is desperate for God to reach out to him.....to prove that he is there. These stories connect and diverge at times, but what is clear to me, is that Malick wants us to appropriate these stories together…..that the search for God's love can feel elusive just as the search for lasting earthly love feels elusive, despite the fact that we keep trying to find both.
If this is a personal story that continues along the lines of The Tree of Life, then things are beginning to appear very biographical for Malick. With the continuation of Christian Theological themes even more present here in To the Wonder, it must make us take stock of The Tree of Life as a direct representation of one man’s spiritual rebirth. I don’t see how anyone can mistake the final sequence for anything other than that, considering the questions and themes that continue to arise here. But if The Tree of Life was Malick’s spiritual rebirth, then To the Wonder, is his spiritual doubt creeping in. Paralleling the spiritual doubt with relational doubt here feels like 2 sides of the same coin, and of in fact the same person. In the film it’s easier to tell these two stories from two separate characters, but my reading of this is that the ideas come from the same being….in this case perhaps Malick.
The expression of isolation, and of the inability to really achieve relational and spiritual intimacy is striking. In one sense, Malick is able to convey an unease through the interior shots in the home, almost reminding me of Nick Ray’s claustrophobic interior design in Bigger Than Life. I swear, when you watch the shaky camera movements and odd points of view shots in the home, there is something disconcerting about modern life, about Suburbia, about the disconnection between our modern life and nature/God. When the camera is outside, it swings smoothly, catches it’s breath and breathes deeply of the earth, grass, and sky. There is a freedom to these shots that feels opposite to the interior shots and this must be purposeful. It is no surprise then that To the Wonder, is Malick’s first film to be filmed in the “present day”. This cannot be a coincidence, as he’s able to project a disconnect between the individual and the other, and between the individual and God, paralleled with a modern malaise that makes suburbia feel like a place where souls go to die. Furthermore, it’s not a coincidence that Affleck’s character is researching pollution by a local factory that appears to be polluting the surrounding area. Basing the film in the present day allows for no sentiment or nostalgia for a more innocent time, like in The Tree of Life, mostly set in the 1950’s. And I think Sean Penn’s modern alienation on display there in those few scenes in that film is also echoed in To the Wonder to a large degree. Malick seems to suggest the only thing that keeps one going is to get “out”. The priest achieves a bit of a reprieve when he leaves the church to go walk the town and find people to help. Others find reprieves when they step out in the fields to bask under the sky. That scene near the buffalo as Affleck and McAdams marvel at the beasts is one of discovery and magic, something that Malick seems to indicate we have lost.
I think Malick is moving into more Bergman-like obsessions around spirituality, although his POV is slightly different than Bergman’s. Malick seems a bit more resigned to “this is the way it is”, rather than barking at God in anger. I actually wonder whether the quest for intimacy and purpose is more related to Bresson’s quiet search for spiritual resolve. Ultimately, though, Malick seems content with continuing to search for God, and to seek his love. At the end of the film, Father Quintana says, "Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to seek you." I also wonder whether Malick is working on some sort of trilogy or something. To the Wonder seems like a close cousin to The Tree of Life, and I’m wondering if the next film of his explores similar themes as well. To the Wonder is not an actor's movie though. The actors didn’t leave me with any lingering impression, like Hunter McCracken, Brad Pitt, and Jessica Chastain did in The Tree of Life. There are really no exchanges at all in To the Wonder in fact….even conversations are muted to allow for voiceovers. Emmanuel Lubezki’s tremendous cinematography and the excellent use of musical compositions is astounding though and this makes up for the lack of traditional "acting". Some reviews have complained this film is too “Malicky” for it’s own good. Although I understand that some could see this as nearly self-parody of his own best work, I tend to think he is moving in new directions thematically, and going down darker and deeper paths than he ever has before and I welcome this. Perhaps what many are most uncomfortable with, is the intense spiritual and specifically Christian elements in the film. It cannot be ignored and is a significant key to understanding what Malick is trying to express. To the Wonder will be one of the best films of 2013.