Review: To The Wonder
Sunday, April 14, 2013
To The Wonder
A lot of people are going to hate this film. Maybe even you. Terrence Malick is often dismissed as boring, pretentious, and heavy-handed. But Malick, for whatever reason, has the clout to do what few filmmakers can do and what even fewer have the nerve—or indeed, the intellect—to do. And that is to make a film entirely on his own terms. Love it or hate it. Emphasis on the word “film.” Because Malick’s art can only be expressed through the medium of the film. It’s all about photography, music and –perhaps most importantly--editing. Which indeed where the art of film is most clearly defined and how it stands apart from still photography.
If Malick walked into film school with any of his recent scripts, he’d probably be told to go start with screen writing 101. Where’s the action? Where are the beats coming at 10, 20, 40 minutes? Where is the key dialogue needed to tell the audience what is happening, to heighten their suspense, to fulfill their dramatic expectations? I can only imagine what his films look like on the page, because so much of his art is synthesized through the shooting and what happens in postproduction. So if you want to go see a movie that will give you some cathartic release, a fulfillment of expectations, you don’t go see a Malick film. But if you are willing to let his films wash over you, to let character and story unfold through snippets of action, with minimal dialogue, with characters speaking poetically through voice over, internal monologue, then his films might be experiences worth putting yourself through. For me, they are never short of transformative.
TO THE WONDER isn’t quite as non-linear as its predecessor, THE TREE OF LIFE. It also isn’t as overtly cosmic. But it also tells a much larger, universal story with a minimum number of characters and situations. You won’t see the universe being born, or dinosaurs walking the earth. (Though you do see one lovely scene of a turtle swimming underwater. The closing credits site scenes from Tree of Life, and I’m going to assume this was one that previously was left on the cutting room floor of that film.) To condense it as simply as possible, the two main characters, Neil and Marina, (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, whose characters may never actually be referred to by name in the film) are living together in France when we first meet them. They are enjoying what appears to be, on the server, an almost too perfect romantic relationship. It’s the situation where most characters usually end up in more straightforward romantic story. But then they relocate to Oklahoma, presumably for Affleck’s work and because it’s where he’s originally from. She also brings her ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage with her. It’s not long before disillusionment sets in, and what once seemed like a perfect, arranged-by-destiny relationship turns sour. Mother and child return to Europe and Neil begins a brief relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), someone he knew in his earlier life. It doesn’t last, Olga moves back to the U.S. (sans daughter, who seems to now be living with her father) and Neil and Marina quickly get married.
I won’t say more, although “spoilers” in a Malick film are hardly an issue—it’s how things are said, not what is said that usually counts. And you are left to fill in the blanks of a lot of this relationship, which sometimes moves slowly in idyllic bliss (lots of euphoric twirling and spinning by Marina, which admittedly wears a bit after time) and sometimes, almost shockingly, takes an abrupt and disturbing turn. Love is addressed as not just an emotional issue, but also a spiritual one. Indeed, the loss of love is examined as a certain loss in spiritual direction. Driving this more cosmic aspect of the story is Father Quintana, played by the always-compelling Javier Bardem. But at the same time the priest is trying to give guidance to others, we also very quickly learn that he is struggling with a spiritual crisis of his own.
Malick is possibly the most spiritual of all major, contemporary filmmakers. He clearly believes in God, in a higher purpose, in the bigger forces in the universe that have put us into play on this planet. But he also is not religious to the point that he avoids the eroticism of love either. His characters are entirely human (in spite of what a superficial reading of his films might lead one to believe) and the pain they cause to others and feel themselves is entirely real. As Malick sees it, the divine is always present in this world, though it doesn’t necessarily mean his characters are going to attain it or that they are lesser people for not doing so.
Malick’s characters are not spelled out or fully defined. Dialogue is fleeting. Often in his film, you are left in the observer role, much as we often are in real life. What was that fight about we saw that couple having in the restaurant? Look at those two people in love—I wonder how they met? In real life, we’re rarely exposed to all the specifics in the relationships between intimate partners. We usually can only observe as outsiders and try to ascertain the depth of their actual story. That’s sort of how Malick presents his characters. We are voyeurs, but we don’t get to live inside of their heads, much as writers and filmmakers attempt to do with most movie love stories. In Malick’s films, it’s the sum total of these fleeting glimpses that ultimate define what his films are “about.”
Parts of this were hard for me to take personally. I’ve been through a lot of what these characters experience on film. (Without the lavish side trip to France, unfortunately.) And I can say he portrays that bitterness that can develop between people who once loved each other intensely in a way that feels more real to me than most movies with clearer plots and way more dialogue. What isn’t said can often be more deadly than what is. Most people’s lives don’t play out like conventional beat-by-beat screenplays with an important plot turn at 20 minutes, an Act Two revelation and a tidy denouement after the climax. In that way, Malick’s films tend to be sometimes more emotional than intellectual experiences. Which may seem surprising, because I know there are people who dismiss his films as merely cold exercise in technique. But I almost always moved by his films. And that’s not just because of the always gorgeous photography and beautiful music. It’s the way he portrays the spaces between us in the way that can resonate down to the core.
Upon immediately leaving the theatre, it was hard for me to say what I actually “thought” about the film. For me, the difference between films that are merely very good entertainment and those that come close to be art is how much they resonate with me in the hours, days, weeks, months and years after I see them. Some scene that haunts me, some sequence whose importance only becomes after clear after I’ve had a period of time in which to process it. Films that provide catharsis leave us exiting the theatre thinking we’ve seen a really great film and we’ll rush out and tell all of our friends to go see it. I know I can’t do that with a Malick film. Almost every one of his films I see is initially a disappointment in the moments immediately after I see them, mainly because they inevitably, unfairly, have to be compared to his previous work. But I suspect TO THE WONDER is going to resonate with me in a way that every one of his previous films has.
posted by Jim Chadwick @ 5:53 PM,