What a peculiar film Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder is. Here is a film–much like its far-reaching predecessor, The Tree of Life–that lies completely, holistically in the spiritual. I don’t mean the kind of “spirituality” we subconsciously attribute to Sunday school or hours spent in stuffy, un-air conditioned churches. What I mean, rather, is the type of spirituality achieved by pondering our place within the mystery–the act of attributing, through rumination, our life to the larger forces that may or may not be at work. I know. I can hear you now. The words “here we go again” have just left your lips, under your breath, followed by the to-be-expected (but understood) follow-up act: an emphatic eye roll of relative disdain. Fine. I don’t blame you. Perhaps you’re not like me, then. You’re probably not adrift with us few–ever-so enthusiastically–on Malick’s rarefied wavelength.
It’s a place in the cinematic space-time continuum chocked full of ever-gliding steadicams, sublime imagery, music sent from the heavens, and an artistic outlook so ambitious and deeply contemplative that, at times, it makes Kubrick’s existential pondering in 2001: A Space Odyssey look relatively pedestrian. With To The Wonder, all of these things are again on parade for the docile poet of the cinema. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from Malick: the quiet voice-over narration, contemplative composition, astral visual ramblings. This time, much like in The Tree of Life, he’s catering to no one’s sensibilities but his own, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with it. In fact, I welcomed it–even in all of its glorious imperfection. It’s a proverbial breath of fresh air before the four month stint of things no moviegoer ever saw coming: one tedious, brainless summer action rehash after another (not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with that).
In the opening minutes of the film, we see Neil (Ben Affleck), in France, falling deeply in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and, as they do so, the peculiar mold of the film begins to take shape. As it opens, we see the two of them flirtatiously engaged on a passenger train. Malick sets the stage here by doing what made many sequences in The Tree of Life so impactful and unique: he films them through the filter of a minds’ eye, creating the look, feel and experience of memories conjured. For the remaining 110 minutes of the film (Malick’s shortest in his four decade long career), we see Neil, Marina, her daughter Tatiana, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) and Jane (Rachel McAdams) as moments in time–their actions dictated by reflection–just as one would see them in the furthest recesses of their memory.
After falling in love in Paris, Marina decides to move to Oklahoma with Neil. As we move from breathtaking shots of Mont St. Michel to the rolling prairies outside of suburban Oklahoma, the two are shown laughing, caressing one another, dancing, arguing, forgetting. Eventually, Marina grows dissatisfied with Niel’s progressing emotional distance. Distraught, she returns to France. Once she’s gone, Neil revisits a former romance between himself and Jane, but the flames are quickly fanned after she learns that his motives are strictly lustful in nature. Marina returns after a severe bout of loneliness, only to find that the late night streets of Paris are just as cold and lifeless as the empty cookie cutter homes of suburban Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Father Quintana is struggling with his vocation. He–like Marina and Niel–is finding that his love for the church is slowly abandoning him. He attempts to remedy this vacancy by tending to others in need, but, unshakeable skepticism seems to override his ventures.
So, why does a film with so little going on have so much hubbub surrounding it? As is normal with Malick, it all means, well, many things. Some of them are easily discernible, but some are not. One thing’s for certain, though: what is meant to be taken from this film is not its specific occurrences, and, if you approach it with the mindset that actors are haphazardly wandering into an inflated nature documentary from time to time, you’ll be maddeningly disappointed (and probably a little bit pissed off). A film becomes what you bring to it, and, as is the understood norm with most of Malick’s work, this time you’ll need to bring more than your fair share.
Love permeates these people’s lives, but indefinable and unexplainable forces seem to control its whys, hows and what fors. Their love is perpetually challenged by actions each of them remain blind to. What these forces/actions are, Malick does not know, and neither do we. Why do Neil’s emotions abandon him during his love affair with Marina? Why does he lust after and use Jane? Why does Father Quintana find his lifelong love for the church being challenged in ways he never thought possible? And what of those Quintana attempts to aid? Has love not nourished the poor, permeated the criminals, and flooded the psychologically unstable? What a mysterious and impartial entity nature is.
The Tree of Life is a film that affected me in ways that I still find difficult to articulate. It’s beautiful, mesmerizing, and transcendent. Since that film, Malick’s work has become increasingly spiritual and introspective. To The Wonder follows in the same vein, but, all of its ambition aside, the outcome feels less substantial and, at times, moderately desultory. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, though, because it certainly is not. However, I suppose that once you make a film as unequivocally aspiring as The Tree of Life, a second, less dense effort will seem automatically “dissatisfying.” The bar, in all its elusive glory, has been set high.
Perhaps the growing rumination in Malick’s work is tangential to his transition to old age. Is it not true that the closer one gets to death, the more one begins to look inward? Malick has been making films since the early 1970’s. The overlying theme tying together every film he has made since his debut feature, Badlands (1973), is how the “insignificance” of man pales in comparison to the unpredictable power of nature. Perhaps, with all of his films (including this one), he’s attempting to make sense of the mystical, mysterious cathedral of life as he knows it, and, perhaps… no, not perhaps… surely his cinematic ambitions and achievements will be discovered, rediscovered and marveled over for years to come.