In the minds of many, Terrence Malick’s career has gone from missed to over-stated in the last decade. Just look at the Rotten Tomatoes or what his actors think of him. Malick’s focus has shifted from plot and dialogue to scenery and picture, leaving many fans of film in a hazy befuddlement after watching The New World, The Tree of Life, or especially his latest, To the Wonder. Some have called his 2013 film self-parody, or an expensive-looking commercial, but those criticisms are shallow and not worth listening to, really. They substitute personal taste and snarky jabs in the stead of even attempting to unpack a film’s intention and themes. That type of criticism dumbs down the conversation and, in the end, belongs on dorm room floors with bongs and self-inflated thrusts of undergrad faux-philosophy[i] and art criticism[ii].
There is something to be said for the film’s flaws, though. To the Wonder is Malick’s most impressionistic and ethereal film yet, which leaves a lot of unanswered questions as to what is going on in the film. The story floats between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina’s (Olga Kurylenko) relationship, Neil and Jane’s (Rachel McAdams) relationship, and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) and God’s relationship without setting strict boundaries of where the stories begin and end. The characters are practically silent, even, with even less voice-over than one would expect from a Malick film. Everyone flows in and out of constant states of loneliness and false connections. No one in this story feels connected to anyone else, and all they want is that connection. They want to better understand what it is to be someone else, what it is to be one with someone else, and to understand God, if there is even a God. By the end of the story, no one learns anything, because we can’t ever truly learn how to avoid these feelings unless they are delusional. Malick is merely asking the about these truths, as are his characters. They look into the vast beauty of the world for answers.
At least we get beauty. And actual thought on these vast ideas.
The problems with To the Wonder come at whether or not people find value in these meditations. The naysayers are types of people who crave energy, characterization, plot, dramatic arch and/or structure. If Malick’s meditations are disinteresting to some, then this movie is not for them, which is fine. Personal taste (or more obviously in our negative culture, distaste) is a way we define ourselves. Some people listen to Death Grips, some people listen to Handel[iii] compositions, and some people are eclectic and listen to both. Some people think Irrational Games’s Bioshock: Infinite is a fantastic video game that was worth the 5 year wait thanks to its emphasis on story, while others think it is a crap 1st person shooter that is overly serious[iv]. The key point is that whether not a movie is for someone or not is different from what the film is trying to accomplish and what it does in fact accomplish.
Malick is most definitely reaching for those unanswerable questions in his latest film, as he was in his Academy Award nominated, Palm d’Or-winning The Tree of Life. He packs To the Wonder with similar tricks and tropes, but the ideas he are reaching for are much less optimistic and hopeful. His characters in The Tree of Life were sad in their own way, but by the end of the film, they saw a version of heaven and felt beauty and together at last. Here in To the Wonder, we are left with uncertainty and oscillating and unreliable relationships between people who know what they want, but not how to achieve that goal.
And they never learn. They probably will never learn. But they try. They dance in fields, walk amongst buffalo, witness the strange elegance of sea turtles, exist in a constant state of sunset, touch beautiful stain glass windows in churches, make love, kiss one another’s feet in humility, throw furniture in a rage, clean up the messes silently, and repeat. It sounds banal, but it is not. These moments, small and large, are where we show our true selves in real life. Do we stop and smell the roses, or do we run past? It is hard to tell what the characters do, but those moments where they take in the world around them, they are obviously at their happiest. Marina and Neil are never happier than when they are experiencing the beauty of the world around them, and never sadder than when at home, doing nothing. Neil and Jane work when they watch the horses run on her ranch, but they also fall apart as Neil and Marina do. Father Quintana is helping people by giving them the comfort organized religion offers, but when he is alone, he avoids the world as much as he can because it pains him to see the mockeries that he believes God thrusts on his flock.
By the end of the film, we see there is no end. I’m wondering if Neil and Marina will not be together again, or Neil and Jane. Like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films, Neil could meet with these women forever, only to be disappointed by the result and unable to connect again. Even during the film they leave one another and reunite, even to marry. The perpetual nature of the relationships, for better or for worse, feels true to life. Malick’s focus on picture and scene over characters also harkens to Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, a film about beauty, façade, and puzzles which tells its story by looking at beautiful architecture, shallow but elaborate façades, and contains many games which acts as to further puzzle, but also at times enlighten, the viewer of the film. I don’t know if Malick had Linklater or Resnais on his mind as he made To the Wonder, but they, especially Malick+Resnais, are in the same conversation, for sure, for ambiguous filmmaking.
This may not be Malick’s best film (it’s not) but he is going further and further into his own style. I have no doubt that he will become even more experimental as his strangely accelerating career continues. He is currently editing 5 films, and to think he once went 20 years without a film between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. We live in a world where our entertainment and art is becoming more obvious and cleanly plotted, so a film like To the Wonder feels like a breath of fresh air. I in no way want every film to be like this, without a standard plot or even dialogue, but I appreciate and enjoy this one. Chances are, though, that Malick does not care if you make your choice and not pay to see his movie, which is your right[v]. Malick is making movies for himself, and I’m happy to be along for the right until his next long hiatus.
I give To the Wonder a decent 8 out of 10.
[i] Kind of ironic that this is one of the big criticisms labeled against Malick, huh?
[ii] Keep in mind, I just graduated college myself. So feel free to call me out for my own pretentiousness. I’m *this* close to adding a winky emoticon to this blog post.
[iii] I like Death Grips and Handel.
[iv] I think it rocks. Maybe Kyle will review it soon for YPOIW?
[v] Unless you live in some weird Malick-only commune.