Like any of Terrence Malick's films, To the Wonder is full of breathtaking beauty: Paris bathed in the golden hour, a herd of buffalo amidst amber waves of grain, women lifting their hands in rapturous praise against purple-orange sunsets—all paired with lush classical selections from the likes of Górecki, Berlioz, and Arvo Pärt.
Yet more than any of Malick's five previous films, To the Wonder also contains quite a bit of mundane, un-rapturous imagery: laundromats, SUVs, suburban cul-de-sacs, car-washes, Sonics, Targets, Kraft mac n' cheese displays at the grocery store. There is a fair share of ugliness too: polluted rivers, infidelity in an Econo Lodge, broken, battered and dying human bodies of every kind.
Especially in contrast to the nebulae-and-dinosaurs grandiosity of The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder is almost disarmingly grounded in the sometimes-blah business of everyday life. It's a subdued film by comparison, but is equally curious about questions of God, suffering and beauty. Far from the "minor Malick" some have labeled it, Wonder is a characteristically ambitious, boundary-pushing film that builds upon the stylistic and thematic trajectories of its predecessors.
Malick—notoriously reclusive and sporadic in his film output— is entering a prolific period. With 2011's The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and a pair of films currently in production, Malick is on track to match his first 33 years of output (four films) in just a five-year span. Maybe he's found the perfect set of kindred-spirit collaborators, or maybe it's because he turns 70 this November, but the philosopher-turned-filmmaker seems more reflective and urgent than ever.
"Just Let It Roll Over You"
Already firmly established as a living legend, Malick is at the point in his career where he can make films exactly as he wants them, thoroughly unconcerned with the norms of studio filmmaking. But the ultra-abstract, "what just happened" tenor of his recent work is perhaps what you'd expect from a man who studied philosophy under Stanley Cavell at Harvard in the 1960s, read Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and lectured in philosophy at MIT.
This can make things tough for the average filmgoer: part of some audience's trouble with Malick's films is that they sense them to be layered, complex, and heady (which they are) and thus approach them as intellectual puzzles to be assembled in logical fashion. But Malick himself would advise audiences (as he did once in a rare post-screening Q&A in his hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma) to "just get into it; let it roll over you."
This is probably good advice for one's first viewing of Wonder, as with The Tree of Life or even The New World (2005). These are films best experienced viscerally first, intellectually later. Still, it might be unwise to encounter To the Wonder with no idea of what or why it is. It helps if you see The Tree of Life first.
I heard someone describe To the Wonder as a B-side to The Tree of Life, which seems fitting. The films—releasing only two years apart (a millisecond in Malick time)—are thematic and stylistic companion pieces made by the same core crew: producer Sarah Green, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, production designer Jack Fisk, costume designer Jacqueline West, and so on. And like The Tree of Life, which was a memoir of Malick's childhood in 1950s Texas, To the Wonder is also an autobiographical film exploring an ill-fated romance in Malick's adult life.
In the early 1980s (near the beginning of his twenty year absence from cinema), Malick lived in Paris and fell in love with a Parisienne named Michèle Morette who lived in his apartment complex and had a daughter from a previous relationship. After a few years the three of them moved to Austin, Texas and Malick and Morette married. The couple divorced in 1998, however, and Malick reconnected with his rumored former high school sweetheart (Alexandra "Ecky" Wallace) and they are married still today.
Though the names and some of the places are changed, this is more or less the plot of To the Wonder. Ben Affleck plays the Malick character (named Neil in the credits), and at the start of the film we witness the apex of his romance with "Marina" (Olga Kurylenko). We see the couple twirling around Paris, sometimes with Marina's 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) in tow. We see them take a trip from Paris to "the Wonder," a nickname for Mont Saint-Michel, the Normandy monastery that gives the film its name.
These rapturous early scenes of joy, which call to mind similar "love in Eden" openings of Days of Heaven (1978) and The New World, soon transition from the Old World romance of France to the New World frontier of the Oklahoma plains. From here the film settles into a somewhat more homely place: Bartlesville, the small town where Malick grew up and where Malick's father Emil (a former oil geologist played by Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life) lived until his death in February at age 96.
Against the backdrop of oil boomtown Bartlesville, Malick—described by one critic as "a Red State Coleridge" and "a philosopher-poet of the oil patch"—applies the full force of his vision to a town near and dear to his heart. Amidst carnivals, main street parades and high school marching bands, Marina and Tatiana try to acclimate but never feel quite at home. It becomes apparent that the love between Marina and Neil isn't going to be all wheat field sunsets and golden hour vistas.
Soon the "days of heaven," as it were, fade and Marina's visa expires. She and Tatiana return to France and during this off period Neil reconnects with old friend Jane (Rachel McAdams, in what seems to be the Ecky Wallace role). Eventually Marina returns to Bartlesville and she and Neil get married.
But challenges persist. Marina's unsettledness leads her to an emotional departure that proves fatal to the relationship—similar to John Smith (Colin Farrell) and his hunt for the "Indies" in The New World, or Miranda Otto's "I got lonely" infidelity in The Thin Red Line (1998). By the film's third act Eden feels far away and Neil and Marina realize that, as Nat King Cole croons at a similar "it's over" juncture in Badlands (1973), "the dream has ended, for true love died."
Though on the surface To the Wonder may play out like a repetitive narrative of up-and-down relational strife between two people we never really know very well, the film cuts deep if you let it. There are big, God-oriented questions afoot.
"Everywhere you are present, and still I can't see you. How long will you hide yourself?" prays Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Pope Francis-esque servant who regularly prays with the sick and dying of Bartlesville, gives communion to prisoners, and even comes to the aid of dogs chained to porches.
In many ways Quintana is a counterpart to Marina—a resident alien (he prays in Spanish, she in French) who feels the pang of being other. They are the two major voices of the film and share a desire to see the wonder and experience God, yet their approaches are different. Marina recognizes the presence of the divine, yet she struggles with the two women inside her: "One full of love for [God]" while the other "pulls me down towards the earth."
It's a familiar Malick theme: this "war in the heart of nature" (The Thin Red Line) and "I do what I hate" (The Tree of Life) inner battle, visualized with the juxtaposition of a placid, still river (on the "love for God" side) and a violent torrent of water dammed up (on the earthly pull side). Quintana also understands his search for God in terms of water, repeatedly praying things like "My soul thirsts for you" and "Will you be like a stream that dries up?"—sentiments that echo Pocahontas inThe New World (referring to God as "the great river that never runs dry") and bring to mind the "Paradise restored" imagery of the River of Life and Tree of Life in Revelation 22, a key biblical passage for The Tree of Life.
Each of Malick's films is in some sense about the specter of Paradise Lost and the felt breach of communion between God and man (on account of sin). Each film longs for that Revelation 21 moment when God will once again dwell in physical presence with his people. But until the moment comes, how do we experience God's immanence even when the stream seems dry?
Quintana suggests that we should seek God not by looking inward or focusing on love as our emotions define it, which "come and go like clouds." Rather, we should try to model the other-focused love of Christ that is not a feeling but a command. Quintana's call to focus away from ourselves and to let our love be transformed into something higher is a call to open our eyes to the beauty and wonder all around us, to witness the "Love that loves us" in the child's face, the horse's gallop, the flock of birds in the sky, the spongy texture of a marsh.
A key quote in The Tree of Life applies here as well: "Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive." This is a near quotation from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, when Zosima advises:
Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all of God's creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.
This passage seems to encapsulate not only the message of To the Wonder but also Malick's overarching approach to cinema. It's perhaps noteworthy that To the Wonder is credited as "A Brothers K" production, which may be a Dostoevsky or David James Duncan reference, or both.
Seeing Ourselves Rightly
To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It's no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil's own cell phone camera (as they travel by train "to the Wonder"). It's the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; "All things shining" (The Thin Red Line).
Malick's camera has a particular gaze. He spends more time than most on almost gratuitous beauty (puffy clouds, swimming turtles, beautiful hands). And his lens lingers on the mundane: empty rooms, walls, appliances, even a laptop displaying a Skype conversation. Everything is interesting to Malick.
Everything except himself. In both To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, the actors portraying the adult Malick (Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, respectively) come across as passive observers—quiet, contemplative, almost awkward bystanders in the movie. They are fitting representations of a man who seems far more comfortable paying attention to the world around him than bringing attention to himself.
Much has been made of Malick's tendency to hire big-name actors for his films, shoot tons of footage, and then leave them largely or entirely out of the final cut. Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper are among the actors ultimately cut out completely from To the Wonder. Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on The Thin Red Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. It may be a somewhat cruel trademark (from the big-ego actor's point of view), but this method is fundamental to Malick's vision of man's place in the cosmos.
In this, Malick is suggesting that it's far more important for us to see well rather than to be well seen. Insofar as cinema has a purpose, it should not be about audiences glorifying actors or actors glorifying themselves, as much as creating an environment of focused vision and contemplation wherein the beauty of this world confronts and perhaps transforms the audience.
The whole of Malick's oeuvre seems to be a call to put aside our hubris and wake to the Divine all around us. Brad Pitt's character in The Tree of Life "wanted to be loved because I was great," but by the end of the film he recognizes that he was foolish for paying no attention to "the glory all around us . . . I dishonored it all and didn't notice the glory."
But when Malick speaks of being awakened to the "glory all around us," what does he mean? Is it a sort of pantheistic deification of nature? A deistic affirmation of some vague, removed divinity? With The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder, I am convinced that he is speaking of "the glory" of the world not in the sense of being the thing to be worshipped but as pointer to the Being to be worshipped, namely the Christian God. To adopt this way of seeing is to engage with external activators of the sensus divinitatis built into our very being—an innate proclivity to suspect God's existence.
Grateful Belief—in the Sacred, and the Mundane
Though many of Malick's characters struggle with faith and feel God to be distant (Mrs. O'Brien in The Tree of Life, Pocahontas in The New World, Sgt. Welsh in The Thin Red Line), most of them—through encounters with Love or with beauty—come back to a place of belief. Father Quintana in To the Wonder, for example, remains thirsty for God the whole film, even in the midst of suffering. In a beautiful sequence Quintana quotes part of St. Patrick's Lorica in a prayer that encapsulates the film's underlying vision:
Teach us where to seek you. Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart. Thirsty. We thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of you. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.
Immediately prior to this prayer, Malick's curious gaze lands on a nun, fully outfitted in habit, standing at a kitchen sink alone, washing silverware. We then see that it is actually Quintana looking at her, and we see that he is moved. In one image: the sacred and the mundane; work and worship; washing away the stain; the specter of Eden in a household chore. In a way the moment echoes the final voiceover of the soldiers leaving Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, looking out on the blood-soaked beaches and the baptismal wake of the departing boat: "Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind, the features of the same face?"
I suspect Malick's answer is yes. Pain, struggle, loss, strife: it's all an opportunity to see the face of God and to grow in faith. Just as nature was created to be resilient in the midst of difficulty (see the asteroid in The Tree of Life, or the palm shoot springing up from the bombed out beach in the final shot of The Thin Red Line), humans were created to press on and grow, emboldened by the grace, forgiveness and guiding Spirit of "the Love that loves us," come what way. The same advice that keeps Pocahontas going in The New World (to think of a tree: "If a branch breaks off, it don't stop but keeps reaching toward the light") helps Marina overcome hard times and press on in To the Wonder.
It's enough for us to simply say—as Marina does in the film's final line—"thank you." Thank you to a God who gives us purpose and guides us "towards the light." And thank you to a filmmaker willing to join us on that journey.
The Family Corner
To the Wonder is rated R for a few brief scenes of sexuality and fleeting nudity. It is extremely brief and artfully presented and is tame compared to many PG-13 films. There is also one scene of adultery inside a cheap motel, but it is clearly presented as a wrong choice with serious consequences later in the film. Moreso than its content, the film's elusive, abstract style will likely keep the film off the radar for all but the most adventurous young filmgoers.