To the Wonder

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2012)

Glimpses of Beauty

The latest visual poetry from the ever-enigmatic Terrence Malick finds the filmmaker exploring themes of romantic love in the present day, both for the first time. Never has such a short amount of time passed between Malick films, and given the universal critical acclaim of The Tree of Life, it might explain why the overall reaction (if any at all) to this year’s To the Wonder was generally poor. If viewed merely as leftovers from 2011’s cinematic triumph, then Malick’s latest would certainly seem like a resounding disappointment. But, seeing To the Wonder through a new lens – one not tired of the director’s aesthetic – reveals that his latest is rather unlike its immediate predecessor at all and that the director has new territory yet to uncover. While The Tree of Life grappled with existential quandaries that called for sequences devoted to the grandiosity of the cosmos, To the Wonder appears much smaller in scale focusing on the lives of just a few in small town America – no less accomplished, but seemingly more personal, intimate.

In this way, Malick’s latest most resembles The New World, if one must find an antecedent in his oeuvre. In that film, Pocahontas became a foreigner discovering a foreign land as she came to live with the English settlers in Jamestown and eventually journey to England. Here, the foreigner is Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian woman raising her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) in Paris only to be uprooted again when she follows a new love to his home in the United States. Their newfound love sustains Marina and Neil (Ben Affleck) only for a time. Soon, Marina finds Neil consistently distant and her daughter pining for the familiarity of home. Mistaking the feelings of security, comfort, and passion for love, she decides to leave Neil and return to Paris when her visa expires only to come back to the States when the burden of his absence becomes too much to bear. Ultimately, however, the disillusionment of this troubled union leads her into the arms of another man, effectively dissolving her love affair and marriage. To mirror Marina’s crisis of faith in love, Malick also gives us Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) – another foreigner in this strange land who likewise stands on the edge of a crisis of faith. This morose priest cannot help but doubt the goodness of God when faced with the injustices of poverty, sickness, and suffering that surround him.

The bulk of Malick’s film rests on these tumultuous relationships between characters: those between Marina and Neil, Jane (a former love interest whom Neil revisits, played by Rachel McAdams) and Neil, and Father Quintana and God. The people who populate To the Wonder may very well be Malick’s most wounded characters yet. And, like his previous work, the filmmaker favors voiceover narration over dialogue. In fact, almost all dialogue has been eclipsed by the use of voiceovers and the film’s saturnine soundtrack adding to its internalized intimacy. Plenty of great films reproduce the realistic, verbose arguments that shatter relationships (such as Richard Linklater’s recent Before Midnight), but no other working filmmaker quite captures the equally damaging and present silent moments in between exchanges like Malick. His latest features the most notable instances of trailing dialogue suggesting that these interchanges are not nearly as important as the effect they have on his characters.

In more than its sole reliance on voiceovers, To the Wonder marks several firsts for its director. The aforementioned contemporary and suburban setting challenges the filmmaker and regular collaborator director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki to highlight manmade infrastructure over nature. Malick trades in clusters of trees for rows of homes, natural landscapes for drive-thrus and grocery stores, and yet the final product is one of inexplicable beauty. Too, the director’s bold decision to shoot non-actors as the small town’s residents proves to be a wise choice and one that adds a new element of verisimilitude yet unseen in his work. All of this undeniably adds to the film’s delicate intimacy.

Eschewing the grand themes and execution of his three previous efforts, the title of his latest proves somewhat ironic. The Tree of Life provided the apex of cinematic wonder and stood as a culmination of the explorations of his entire body of work, thus with a title like To the Wonder, one might rightly assume a furtherance of the same. But, unlike her earlier filmic counterparts (Linda in Days of Heaven, Private Witt in The Thin Red Line, Pocahontas in The New World, and the O’Brien family in The Tree of Life) Marina seems least concerned with unearthing the wonder buried in her surroundings. Yes, she hints at discovery (finding honesty in a small town American parade or sharing in her daughter’s fascination with the cleanliness of a grocery store), but ultimately she is too distracted by her own desires for love to experience the world bursting forth before her eyes. To be sure, this is not a criticism, but it draws a definite line between the trajectory of his last three features and this. To the Wonder may be his most intimate project, but it will probably also resonate with the fewest of his viewers. Whereas we are invited to participate in the musings of Pocahontas as she discovers the new world or Jack O’Brien as he contemplates the meaning of life, Marina’s journey is private and we are invited to watch, but not to engage.

Malick seeks to amend this with the inclusion of Father Quintana’s presence and his own posture of questioning. As a possible, hopeful corrective to Marina’s final decision to abandon the love that once defined her (despite Neil’s presumed forgiveness for her adultery), Quintana’s faith appears restored by film’s end. In a touching sequence narrated by the priest’s self-affirming biblical truths, Quintana (and now Neil) continue to visit the town’s ill, disabled, and downtrodden seemingly recognizing the importance of spreading good. “We were made to see you,” the father meditates as he chooses to rely on something more concrete to repair his faith than mere emotions. But, in the end, it is Marina’s vision we are watching. The film begins and ends with her ruminations. To solidify this notion of internal wondering, Malick concludes his film with an unprecedented (and possibly unintentional) reference to another great filmmaker’s work. The final shots of Mont St. Michel (the Wonder in this film’s title) call to mind the finale of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. As Mr. Chow travels to Angkor Wat to hide the secrets of his lost love in the walls of that age-old, sacred structure, so too Marina buries her hopes, dreams, sorrows, and regrets in the memory of the Wonder where it all began. These glimpses of beauty, if only too brief, mark another breathtaking chapter in Terrence Malick’s revered canon and suggest that his most personal film is yet to come.

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