There are many words to describe the elusive Terrence Malick and “small” isn’t one of them. Malick is BIG. Malick is bold. Malick is beautiful. With a filmography that includes Badlands, Days of Heaven, and 2011’s astonishing The Tree of Life, I’d argue Malick is one of the greatest visionaries of all time, placed somewhere right behind the iconic Stanley Kubrick. Say what you will about The Thin Red Line, but even the scope and ambition of Malick’s least acclaimed movie is still something worth lauding. Challengingly, Malick doesn’t hold your hand through his pictures; he creates landscapes, dreamscapes even, that you must walk alone through and navigate as you please, a feat made more complex since Malick’s films have recently abandoned direct narratives and have become abstract pieces of Impressionist art. His latest, To The Wonder, is his most free flowing yet, but it might be too ambitious for its own good; even a Malick-enthusiast like myself struggled to overcome what is the director’s most tediously frustrating film yet.
The film stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem, but like most Malick features these characters are merely vessels embodying the philosophies of the ever-preaching Malick. Affleck plays Neil, the figure of masculinity that falls deeply and madly in love with Marina (Kurylenko) while on a trip through Europe. Eventually, Neil moves Marina and her young daughter to Oklahoma, where the banality of life begins to cut through Neil and Marina’s bond. Floating in and out of tumultuous love, the two end up in contact with Father Quintana (Bardem), a struggling priest questioning his own love for God, while Neil reaches out to spend time with an old flame, Jane (McAdams). While this synopsis seams linear enough, Malick presents the story more abstractly than he ever has done before (yes, much more than The Tree of Life), and To The Wonder resembles more of a visual love poem than a finite cinematic expierence, with Malick stringing together gorgeous images of nature with intimate camera movements showing the ever shifting nature of Neil and Marina’s love. Honestly, I only know the characters’ names due to a press release I read after the screening, that’s how little Malick guides you through this maddening sermon on the beauty and tragedy of love.
The main problem here is that it’s impossible to review a Malick film on one viewing only – heck, it took four viewings of The Tree of Life to confirm it was one of my favorite movies of all time and perhaps the best film ever made in my 20 years. Expectedly, the cinematography is immaculate; as always, the gifted Emmanuel Lubezki stuns with some of the most beautiful images ever put on screen. The distance Lubezki captures in a remarkable image of Affleck and Kurylenko walking on a vast grey beach is as marvelous as it is painful, and no one can capture the fresh morning sun piercing through fields of tall grass quite like Lubezki. The image of Affleck and McAdams in a field of buffalo and another showing the sky boldly reflected in a pool are jaw dropping and transcendent, words that can apply to nearly every frame of this film; regardless of story, Lubezki’s images demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible and make To The Wonder worthy of a look in the theater. But what about story? How many times can we watch Kurylenko dancing through nature (a metaphor for her wildness, her sense of wandering) before getting somewhat tired? How many times can we see the soft grazing of a cheek and hands touching before asking what this all amounts to? Love is tender, we get it! Is there even a story here? I’m not sure I can answer that. To The Wonder is repetitive in images and camera movements and I don’t know entirely how to feel about it all. Is that Malick’s point? Maybe.
In Roger Ebert’s positive To The Wonder review, his last filed article ever, he supports Malick’s lack of answers by questioning, “Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out?” In response I’d say they don’t – film’s definitely don’t have to explain everything, just look at Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Tree of Life, even Spring Breakers, movies that thrive off of their ambiguities and force the viewer to think and participate in a mental workout of an experience. Movies don’t have to spell out every motivation but they definitely have to make us FEEL every motivation and emotion, even when we get lost in narrative complexties, and it is here where To The Wonder struggles.
What makes The Tree of Life so unbelievable is that despite all its challenges – despite all the times I found myself perplexed and struggling to keep up and figure out what was going on and where in time we were – it always makes you feel. The Tree of Life is about growing up – a young boy growing in a 1950s Texas suburb, the world growing up from mystical cosmos to the Earth we now call home, Malick growing up through the realizations of memories, and, most importantly, you growing up. Extraordinarily, the film makes you feel your own childhood, characters such as Brad Pitt’s father and Jessica Chastain’s mother are canvases for you to paint your own parental memories on. The experience of Tree of Life is tedious and tremendously challenging but the pay-off is transcendent; even after the first viewing, when I didn’t know what the hell I had just seen, I knew something important was buried underneath, something I started to see but would need to go back over and over again to uncover and feel. After watching To The Wonder, that feeling was missing.
I’ve come to realize that Tree of Life has the benefit of being about “growing up” – a theme anyone over the age of 18 can identify with – while To The Wonder’s ideas on “love” are more specific, more intimate. Malick fills the film with his own thoughts and beliefs and creates a love that is extremely cold; in fact, I can’t recall any scene where I felt genuine, passionate love – the beautiful images keep things graceful, but perhaps if Malick started with a traditional narrative and showed us red hot love, the abstract scenes and distance would be more effective. As it is, Wonder keeps moving in traditional Malickian style, intriguing you because you know something is there but thens disappoints because whatever is there is too personal to figure out. This is Malick’s movie and in a way it’s too Malickian, too hard to decipher for someone who has never had a love as deep and raw as the one Malick clearly has had.
But maybe that’s the goal of the movie, too make you come to terms with the state of love in your own life. I’m 20 years old and I couldn’t feel anything in a movie about deep love – what does that say about me? Should I be able to relate to a movie like this at 20? I know I have some friends who would and others who wouldn’t. When will I find a love like this? Do I want a love like this? How would my parents view this movie? How would a recently married couple view it? How would a divorced couple view it? What you’re reading is the Malickian process live – as I’m writing this review and thinking about the movie, I’m digging deeper and getting more and more lost in it. How many other filmmakers can you say that about? If anything, I’m grateful for new Malick (it took almost a decade between New World and Tree of Life), I’m thinking again at the movies and that’s a blessing in itself.
There’s probably a masterful film somewhere in To The Wonder, I guess I’m just not mature enough to find it yet.
Review by Zack Sharf