All words: Ross Bonaime
Ever since Terrence Malick directed his first film, 1973’s Badlands, the reclusive director has taken his time with films. By 2005, he had only released four films, yet still maintained the admiration of one of cinema’s most brilliant autueurs, regardless of large gaps of absence. But then two years ago, Malick released what many believe to be his masterpiece, The Tree of Life, an epic tale that tackled religion, relationships, and even the large scope of the universe, from dinosaurs to the afterlife. It seems like now that Malick has gone as large as he possibly could with his films, he is now able to focus on more intimate tales that he can crank out at lightning-fast speed.
With his latest film, To the Wonder, Malick has his shortest gap between films, and with three more films supposedly in post-production, the director seems to have found a great source of inspiration. Following strongly in the dreamlike emotional overload that Tree of Life presented, To the Wonder is not interested in character or plot, but rather the emotions that these characters can imbue.
Neil, played by Ben Affleck, is an American who visits Paris and meets Olga Kurylenko’s Marina. The two fall in love so Marina and her daughter Tatiana return to Oklahoma with Neil. When problems start to arise between the couple and Marina’s green card expires, she and her daughter move back to Paris. Soon after, Neil reconnects with an old friend Jane (Rachel McAdams) and they start a relationship. Meanwhile, To the Wonder also follows a priest, Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, who questions his path in life and the uncertainty of religion.
What these characters represent is more important than who they are. Neil is constantly filled with uncertainty and doubt, while Marina is all love, faith, and innocence. When the two fight, it becomes more about the clashing of ideals rather than characters. Father Quintana personifies a lack of joy and faith, yet all three characters are constantly in a search for the same thing: love, in the way they personally define it, yet can’t reach it. This is constantly hinted by characters looking into places through windows, staring desperately into areas that they want to reach, but can’t seem to enter.
That being said, Malick is at risk of self-parody throughout, taking lingering shots of beautiful people in gorgeous locations, prancing around silently as they ponder life’s large questions. Sunlight always hits the right angle in a room with nothing but a perfectly white linen coated bed that looks like the stage for a cotton commercial. It’s all beautiful, as is to be expected from Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but at times is almost laughable in its lack of self-awareness.
This is the continuing of Malick at his most personal and emotionally devastating, yet this also puts him at his most challenging. To the Wonder most resembles the childhood moments that were so brilliantly captured in The Tree of Life, yet Malick lets To the Wonder settle in a more vague place by the film’s end. To the Wonder is a gorgeous film, filled with moments of potentially moving ideas and questions that allows the audience to take what they want out of it. Malick isn’t interested in answering questions about how we grapple with love, he’s simply content with just asking them.