There’s a line in Terrence Malick’s latest film To the Wonder in which Olga Kurylenko’s Marina finds herself at the precipice of despair and says “My god… what a cruel war. I find two women inside me. One full of love for you… the other pulls me down towards the earth.” Indeed, all of Malick’s characters in every one of his films have been through this “cruel war”; most notably The Tree of Life‘s Jack O’Brien, who was torn between the Way of Nature and the Way of Grace. Now, we have Ben Affleck’s Neil torn between a Woman of Nature (Rachel McAdams) and a Woman of Grace (Kurylenko), while the Woman of Grace herself is divided by her own feelings towards the man who, in a way, is keeping her prisoner; draining her of her love, yet returning some of it in the process. She will never be free of His presence, even when she attempts to leave it. But ’tis better to have love and lost than to have never loved at all.
Many will scoff at To the Wonder, which is easily the most elliptically-told film in Malick’s decade’s long career. Affleck stated in interviews that it makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers by comparison, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I can see where he’s coming from. Say what you will about The Tree of Life‘s unconventional, non-linear structure, but it had structure. To the Wonder, meanwhile, flows like a river. Sometimes it moves calmly and serenely, other times the water crashes onto the rocks and splashes about messily, but it always, always flows. It never stops to settle in a single scene, and never lingers on a shot for too long. Just a cut here, a cut there, with nary a worry for whether the shots are linearly conveyed. It’s stream-of-consciousness filmmaking with emphasis on the ‘stream’.
Whereas The Tree of Life was an apotheosis of all of Malick’s signature thematic obsessions, To the Wonder is an amalgamation of his formalistic obsessions. More than any of his past films, it’s a pure exercise in his art of constant voice-overs and free-wheeling editing choices, and it’s so 110% Malick that it surely will be–and already has been–labeled as “self-parody”. But make no mistake, this is far from Malick fluking. If anything, this is simply Malick’s style amplified to the nth degree. What To the Wonder will prove is just how much of that style the viewer can take before drawing the line.
Of course, it should go without saying that those who found the philosophizing in The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and The New World to be arduous and unbearably pretentious would simply slit their own throats in frustration if they were to see To the Wonder. This is a relentlessly artsy film. Malick has always had a fondness for voice-over, but here it permeates 90% of the entire picture, making up the bulk of the film’s dialogue. Very little is actually spoken in the scenes we’re watching. Mostly, the audiences bears witness to wordless passages of two lovers embracing so passionately yet innocently, all while accompanied to classical music and, what else, voice-over narration.
Yet this hardly makes for a disconnect, because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is so in tune with what Malick wants to evoke that while To the Wonder might be one of Malick’s least intellectually-rewarding films, it satisfies immensely on a purely visceral, emotional level. Here, Lubezki has practically perfected the wandering, never-static camera movements that he started to utilize in The Tree of Life.
We view the scenes like a ghost, invading the characters’ spaces and floating with them as they frolic freely throughout the film’s environments. As you’d have come to expect of Malick, it’s beautiful to behold everything through his keen eye for natural beauty and lighting, and Lubezki’s camera is so free to explore Malick’s world that it can be rapturous to experience. Film critic Bilge Ebiri likened the visual style to that of a dance, and Lubezki glides like the very best ballerinas.
There’s not much to be said about the performances. They are what they are. Outside of the voice-over narration, To the Wonder may as well be a silent film, and the expressions–both facial and bodily–of Affleck, Kurylenko, McAdams, and Bardem are all what you’d expect out of Malick. The stand-out of the cast is Kurylenko, who’s given the most screentime and complexity. She conveys so many deftly handled emotions with so little on-screen dialogue, and does it so well that you could still get the film without her narration overlaying it.
Sadly, Javier Bardem’s character, Father Quintata, is under-utilized. Bardem is too talented an actor to really make waste of, so he still shines in his role, but he has so little to do with the main relationship of Neil and Marina that he feels like an afterthought, only included in order to provide a thematic contrast between Marina’s loss of love and the priest’s loss of faith in God. To the Wonder already conveys that thematic connection so well just with Neil, Marina, and even Rachel McAdams’s character, Neil’s childhood friend Jane. He could’ve been excised from the film and it would’ve lost none of its beauty, passion, and… er, wonder. But hey, Bardem breathes enough life into the role that it’s at least not a limp distraction.
To the Wonder culminates into a climax that’s beautiful enough that I completely forgot my complaints for a brief second. All I could do was let the gorgeous music and indelible imagery wash over me as it reached a remarkable crescendo. When it ended and transitioned into credits, an old woman sitting in the back row said to her companion, “Well, you’re gonna have to explain it all to me on the way home.” What is there to explain? The emotions are all laid bare on the screen, the dialogue so sincere that it can be seen as corny “lovey lovey dove” nonsense. Whatever themes there are that need “explaining”–and the film is certainly not as empty as many will lead you to believe–, To the Wonder is ultimately not meant to be experienced on that level.
Instead of searching through the mysteries of the universe, Terrence Malick cuts open his heart for all to look inside. We’re all free to accept or decline the opportunity, but few filmmakers treat their works like that: A deeply personal gift. That’s what all of Malick’s films are, and that’s what To the Wonder is. Look inside. It’s our’s.