To the Wonder (2012)

Terrence Malick continues to evolve as a filmmaker and inevitably he’s left people by the wayside. While The Tree of Life wowed many audience members with its grandiose scale, some people—including myself—found it too indulgent in places. Regardless, with a film as ambitious as The Tree of Life, any follow-up was likely to be a disappointment for not being as ambitious. I myself lowered my expectations for To the Wonder.

However, To the Wonder is a magnificent film. If anything, in terms of cinematic prowess, it’s a more ambitious film than The Tree of Life. While Malick’s rumination on the cosmos presented the audience with a breathtaking level of scale, a cinematic epic, To the Wonder scales back into a tiny view of the world but pushing the bounds of how to use imagery and editing to convey story, characters and theme.

With each film, Malick has been drifting further and further away from traditional narrative structure in cinema. Yes, there is an arc to the core relationship in the film, but the way Malick expresses that arc is one that avoids a lot of specifics and details. No one in the film comes across as a character in the traditional conceptions of storytelling. Nor do they represent thematic ideas like the parents in The Tree of Life. Instead, the characters are nebulous and loosely defined as is their relationship to each other.

Likewise, To the Wonder gets further and further away from conventional conceptions of what a scene means. To my memory, there’s not a single moment in the film that can be considered a conversation. Instead, Malick only gives the audience one side of a conversation or a voiceover during a scene. At any given time, we’re only able to see and hear one side of what is happening.

Yet instead of becoming more reliant on voiceovers in the absence of traditional scenes and voiceovers, Malick employs cinema as an audio-visual experience by using sensory sequences to express the inner feelings and emotions of characters. The audience almost exclusively gains insight into the Ben Affleck character through haunting scenes of overwhelming noise and desolate imagery that express feelings of despair, desolation and emptiness.

While some might construe these scenes as moments of an indulgent filmmaker, they’re actually signs of a filmmaker who has become more reliant and comfortable with the primordial elements of cinema. Editing, imagery and sounds become the foundation of each scene. Narration, while plentiful, is distilled into simple lines in true Malick fashion.

Turning to visuals, one of the recurring images in To the Wonder is darkness and shadows. There are several scenes where characters wander in darkness. The film also emphasizes the shadows of characters. In another scene, the Ben Affleck character points out the blue bar on the horizon, explaining that it’s the shadow of earth. Both humanity and the earth they inhabit exist as a shadow of something else.

Likewise, Malick is demonstrating that romantic love and human marriage are also shadows. That isn’t to say these things aren’t wonderful and beautiful, the film captures the rapture and wonder of two people in union, but ultimately the quest for fulfillment, security and completeness in romance, love and marriage is unsatisfying. It too is a shadow of something else. Romance, marriage, humanity and the earth are all shadows, but shadows of what?

In order to get towards the film’s answer, I should tell you a bit about the film’s characters. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fall in love in Paris, they move to America, bringing Marina’s daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). However, a shadow looms over the relationship, the root of it being that Neil fails to commit to the relationship through marriage, which is important to Marina because she’s living in America on a ticking visa.

This is where the Javier Bardem character becomes important. He plays a priest called Farther Quintana who is struggling for a God he yearns for but cannot see any evidence of in a world is run down and broken as this one. In his wandering, Quintana sees a place full of broken, ugly people living in a broken, ugly world.

His spiritual struggle and yearning parallels the relationship between Neil and Mariana. Bardem doesn’t get a lot of screen time and some might conclude that this means his inclusion is frivolous. However, the truth is that Father Quintana’s journey is Malick striving towards an answer while being far more interested in the question that arises out of the relationship between Neil and Jane. And as a piece of filmmaking and theology, the final scene with Father Quintana might be one of Malick’s finest sequences.

To the Wonder is Malick’s most alienating film, his most elusive and loosely defined piece of cinema. Yet, it’s also the film where he’s the most overt about his religious and theological themes. Some people aren’t going to like how he makes this film, others are going to disagree with his conclusions. But for those who are able to give themselves over to Malick’s evolving style and contemplate his message, To the Wonder is magnificent.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing

  • Charles Canzoneri

    After the dinosaurs in Tree of Life I gave up referring to anything in a Malick film as ‘frivolous’.

    • James Blake Ewing

      Fair enough. Like I said, Malick has only become more and more alienating of audiences as he’s evolved as a filmmaker.

  • I was thinking quite a bit about Donne (and his Holy Sonnets) as well as some of the classic theological musings on Song of Songs after watching the film since Malick does seem to be exploring the connection between God and the soul in terms of the metaphor of a romantic relationship – is this what you’re seeing, too? If I take the relationship between Neil and Marina more at face value, seeing it as only about human love, I’m left pretty unsatisfied. But the presence of the priest makes me think, like you, there’s much more there, and if their relationship has a larger spiritual significance and we can connect it closely to the priest character, the film becomes so rich and so intensely interesting to me.

    I was also thinking about Milton’s God in Paradise Lost, omnipotent creator who is quite distant and well, let’s face it, pretty boring (Satan is a great deal more interesting and relatable) – but I do think that’s part of Milton’s genius; God does seem like that. We relate to Satan a great deal more than God – and in that reader response, Milton reveals something about us, our humanity, I think. Neil’s character for me was very distant , capricious in a way that controlled Marina, and a little boring – and, like Milton’s God, I didn’t care much about him at all. He’s powerful, but very cold and distant. But I’m thinking this characterization of Neil was intentional on Malick’s part, too – as it was on Milton’s; if Neil is in some sense the god-figure, it makes sense that he’d be distant, inscrutable, seeming capricious, and maybe even boring.

    I don’t like to think of the film as strictly allegorical – I don’t think that works at all – ick. But if I might think of it as a series of metaphorical impressions in which the relationship between God and the soul is being compared to the relationship between lovers, yeah, I like that. What do you think? Does that make sense to you in terms of how you understand the film?

    • James Blake Ewing

      I’ve heard the Song of Songs comparison before, and I certainly think that’s apt to my reading of the film. I do think that final scene with Bardem shows God as that missing piece in the relationship, what the heart yearns for but seeks to fulfill through romantic human love which is a pale shadow of what can completely satisfy that desire.

      I haven’t read Milton since high-school, so I can’t speak to that comparison, although it certainly sounds like an intriguing one.

      And yes, I rarely like strictly allegorical readings. It’s part of why I don’t love Narnia because the allegories are so overt at times I find they overwhelm the storytelling for me. I think metaphorical impression is a much better word for what Malick is doing in this film.

  • I’m glad you saw it and enjoyed it. I know many people are puzzled by it and hated it but I was one of those that enjoyed it. I welcomed the lack of conventional narrative and I think Malick is a true genius in the art of filmmaking. I heard his next 2 films won’t be as experimental as this one but I do know that it won’t be a return to something like Badlands.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I get why people don’t like it, but I think for people like you and me who follow and love his films, it’s a natural progression and evolution of his style so we understand where he’s coming from and what he’s trying to do. I think that went a long way towards my enjoyment of the film.

  • Hell of a good review…It really encapsulates what I think I was trying to get at in my own mind as I tried to explain to myself why I loved the film so much…

    I could likely agree with many of the negatives tossed at the film, but I can’t help but be wowed by Malick’s filmmaking – not just the gorgeous photography (one of the most insanely beautiful films I’ve seen), but also the way he uses the images, montages and sounds to build his story and themes without conventional narrative or dialogue.

    If I get on Twitter later, I’m gonna tweet the crap out of this…B-)

    • James Blake Ewing

      Thanks! Malick is a director I’ve always found difficult to write about so I’m glad people are connecting with what I’ve written about this film. In a lot of ways, this first viewing of TO THE WONDER gave me a bit more clarity into some of Malick’s past films as he’s more overt with themes and ideas and ideas I couldn’t quite frame in my mind before suddenly fell into place after seeing this film. It makes me eager to dive back into yet another series of rewatches of his previous titles, as well as a rewatch of this film.