Reaching out is both the quintessential gesture and the central image of Terrence Malick’s films – his latest one being no exception. To the Wonder offers numerous shots of extended hands brushing against objects as different as rock, grass and a lover’s skin. Towards the end of the movie, a young woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) attempts a prayer by lifting her hands to the sky as if they were a pair of cosmic antennae. It’s hard to think of a better visual equivalent of longing – the one emotion that Malick’s cinema is at once pervaded by and which it tries desperately to alleviate.
As soon as it first screened on the festival circuit, To the Wonder was declared a bad case of self-indulgent doodling, barely kept together by the flimsiest of plots. The reaction was all the more brutal for being a covert backlash (it wasn’t even full year since the near-religious raves bestowed on The Tree of Life). Not for the first time in my life as a critic, I felt like I was inhabiting a Bizarro World of taste: To the Wonder, which I consider to be an infinitely better movie than The Tree of Life, was being attacked for precisely the things that drove me mad in the latter. While Malick’s Palme d’Or winner had some amazing passages, it was destroyed in my view by the non-narrative prologue (basically a succession of exquisite screensavers) and the horrifically “symbolic” coda, evocative more of City of Angels than anything in Days of Heaven. In contrast, To the Wonder struck me as a return to form by one of my favorite directors – as well as a genuine foray into an uncharted territory (it’s Malick’s first work to be fully set in a contemporary era).
Defending To the Wonder is problematic, since most of the accusations leveled against it (most lucidly by Odie Henderson in his TIFF review) are valid. The movie does fail as a story of a tumultuous relationship. It leaves out entire swathes of character interaction that any other director would put smack in the center of her or his tale. In purely dramatic terms, the movie is nothing but fringes and margins. However, in order to sense its underlying tension, one needs to move beyond the motivation of the characters (which Malick barely hints at) and see that they all inhabit the same existential plane: everyone in the movie is trapped in between various worlds. Just like Cube, Gravity and Buried (not to mention The Passion of the Christ), To the Wonder is an experiential movie, offering a glimpse into a specific state of being. In Malick’s case (not surprisingly, given the many years he had spent abroad), the state is that of an expatriate longing to feel at home.
The story itself is one of leaving one’s comfort zone – it’s centered around a romance between Neil, an American man played by Ben Affleck, and Marina, an Ukrainian single mom living in Paris. The relationship is tense: filled with both desire and uneasiness, as well as subject to the test of distance (both literal and cultural) and infidelity. The film’s many locations and numerous languages (I counted seven, including the sign one) only serve to intensify the feeling of displacement. Marina travels to Neil’s home in small-town Oklahoma, gorges on its strange allure, then feels sick of it. However, as soon as she’s back in Paris (of which she seemed all but an extension in the early scenes), the city is alien to her; she resents it with a passion. Making a trip can be as easy as jumping on a plane (or making a David Lean-like cut from a tidal wave in Europe to Oklahoma’s vast plains), but if you stay in a new place long enough, it seeps into you and changes your DNA. Add to that some sexual longing and emotional confusion, and you’re right where the movie desires to take you – at a place of anxiety and anticipation that simply defies remedy.
More than any other movie I have ever seen, To the Wonder succeeds in presenting everyday American life as a historical and sociological marvel to be stunned by: invisible to the natives, but immediately apparent to newcomers (especially ones who, like Marina, had experienced the shriveled grayness of the communist world – or any world in which enterprise is institutionally thwarted). Marina reacts to the casual affluence she sees all around her in an ecstatic, sensuous way. I never expected an American movie to fully render the gaudy beauty of supermarket aisles as seen by someone who grew up without them. The Bloomingdale’s sequence in Moscow on the Hudson comes close, but Malick and his DoP Emmanuel Lubezki surpass it by sheer lyrical power.
The film is full of appreciation for the simple and functional architecture of some of the very staples of American life: laundromats, gas stations, amusement parks, community centers – and, of course, churches. Malick may be the only American director working today who sees his characters as directly dependent on the architecture they inhabit (in that, he resembles Antonioni, only he’s not secular). The movie could have easily switched titles with The New World, had it not been so frank in depicting the aftermath of environmental exploitation – much of the land in To the Wonder literally oozes black blood.
After finally opening in theatres, the film proved extremely divisive. Roger Ebert wrote his beautiful, eerily timed appreciation as the last review he ever filed. Some people were seduced by the film, but many hated it with a passion – but even the detractors often were on to something. In fact, Rex Reed wasn’t that far off when he suggested in his relentless pan that To the Wonder was “about nothing”.
The movie deals precisely with what it feels like to experience a void: the empty space left by a country one misses, a lover no longer passionate, or religion no longer compelling. Failed marriage is the film’s central metaphor: for Affleck and Kurylenko it’s their actual union they lose, and for Javier Bardem’s priest it’s the communion with God that he wishes he could recover. Scenes of the priest’s interactions with the poor and the infirm have a documentary feel to them and show the underbelly of what Marina mistook for paradise.
Just like the Bardem charcater, To The Wonder is a brooding movie – perhaps too much so for its own good. Still, the bursts of beauty Malick creates have true redemptive power. Even when there’s a flat-out mistake (like the sinister motel seduction scene, complete with a symbolic skull tattoo), the surroundings scenes more than make up for it. It’s a strange film, and an imperfect one. But I’d be hard-pressed to find another American movie in the past ten years that would be that inquisitive, heartfelt, restless and spontaneous at the same time.