Wednesday, May 1, 2013

To the Wonder (2013) - Directed by Terrence Malick

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 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.


Sam Juliano said...

"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."

Beautifully-written and profoundly insightful essay Jon! You really know and appreciate your Malick! I agree it's his "darkest" film, though I was able to decipher a ray of hope at the finale. any critics have apparently missed the boat with the director’s latest abstract tone poem above love and marriage, spirituality and landscape, all examined with an allegorical underpinning. The searing, elegiac and hypnotic score that brings together Wagner’s Tristan, with Arvo Part, Gorecki, Berlioz and Tchaivovsky. The music weaves a spellbinding hold while the arresting images in the film render the spare dialogue inconsequential. Malick’s film invites, even demands that viewers submit to an indescribable sensory experience that slowly envelopes the viewer until the conclusions, and leaves one grateful that this reclusive genius has opted for a prolific late career spurt that promises a few films more the next year or too. TO THE WONDER almost defies description, but any attempt to dismiss it will earn that view a long period in the cinematic doghouse.

Again a masterful piece Jon! Really special.

Anonymous said...

Well I think this is easily Malick's worst film (even if I like it for the most part). I was surprised to agree with many Malick haters that at key moments the film seems like a parody of what the director had previously enthralled with. It can go from being frustratedly formless to downright banal and cliche. Affleck is a stiff non-entity, while Kurylenko twirls herself into the land of annoying.

I think you hit the thematic nail on the head with what this film is trying to say and it certainly has a pessimistic edge that adds a new wrinkle to the oeuvre of TM. Overall though I think Malick forgot to add a solid structural foundation that can guide us along. Everything just drifts forward aimlessly for me, never really catching its stride until the last 20 minutes. The romantic storyline is poorly conveyed, and I actually find Bardem the secret weapon that saves To The Wonder. I'm mystified that many critics dislike his presence since I think he adds weight to the flimsy lovers quarrels'. That monologue about Christ to the right, left, and above really conveys the doubt one can have with faith and religion. Every believer must face their fears about loneliness and disappointment at some point. TM seems to be getting some of those feelings out on celluloid and I commend his bold decision. From the moment we witness Affleck, Bardem, and the Down Syndrome man in the house, I think To The Wonder becomes everything I had hoped for. Seeing the film three times already, I can't say the overall body of work gains this level of traction though. Its a frustrating film for me that simply cannot scale the heights of any previous Malick (especially his last three which are all in my top 100 films ever).

At Wonders I also said...."Its possible that Malick works better with a larger canvas. His emotive reverent style needs a subject worthy of exploration. With To The Wonder we mostly get a formulaic ho-hum romance that personally failed to draw me in. I would assume many viewers (even Malick lovers who have soured on To The Wonder en mass) would agree with this sentiment. There is just not enough substance to offer that impassioned sense of awe that he’s conjured up before. In fact the best parts of the film are with Javier Bardem and the exploration of waning faith and religious belief. I almost wish Malick would just go and make a whole film exploring this internal conflict. His efforts to tie the romantic struggle with the larger spiritual questioning don’t quite coalesce for me. The former doesn't really compliment the effectiveness of the latter".

And..."Malick is also recycling much from his previous five films and has (hopefully not) possibly run out of unique ways to convey his ideas. Maybe being so prolific does not suit him. There is also a clear attempt to take The Tree Of Life techniques even further down into cinematic impressionism, but it just falls flat IMO."

Great review Jon. The book is not closed on To The Wonder for me though. I plan on revisiting it again in a year or two to see where it stands. Overall I would rate it a 7/10 (mostly for Bardem and that powerful conclusion).... Maurizio Roca

Jon said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments. Sam I think you and I are probably a bit closer on our opinions of this film and I feel it's a very worthy companion to Malick's other films.

Maurizio.....I understand where you're coming from and even self proclaimed Malick-ites are having some issues with this one. I don't think we're reading it differently, just appreciating it to different degrees. I do agree that Malick's best works tend to be told on a big canvas....this one is a more intimate film more related to his first two. I still prefer The New World and Tree of Life to this one, but it's by all measures IMO still a masterpiece.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Jon, despite my dismissal of this Malick effort at WitD, I think you have penned a worthy thesis in praise of the film. While my jaundiced view remains intact, your thoughtful ideas and writing really impress. I knew of Sam's feelings, but Maurizio's measured assessment is quite a surprise and stands as a solid review on its own. Tony

Jon said...

Tony I read your takedown at WiTD and can't really argue your perspective. At times I was annoyed by the flighty-ness of the whole thing....but I was always brought back down to earth by the doubt aspects in the film. I appreciated the themes even though the execution wasn't necessarily up to his par. I don't think it's the equal of TOL, or The New World....but I'm enjoying the themes that Malick is toying with. Thanks for your thoughts and I appreciate the praise. You're right as well that Maurizio, as much as anyone, has been a Malick fan and struggles with this one. It is a problematic film, but one I fall on a different side of the fence than have many.

Unknown said...

**Spoiler Alert**

Certainly is "beautifully dark" but I would say The New World would be his darkest movie runner up Thing Red Line. I found To The Wonder more of a emotional driven film focused around the couple knowing from the beginning the couples relationship would fall apart. But still kept on pushing for it to work. Beautifully written essay you know your Malick

Jon said...

Thanks Volkan for your comment. Certainly "darkness" is in the eye of the beholder and for me this was his darkest, least optimistic film, but it's certainly up for debate. Thanks for stopping by.