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