Film review: To the Wonder

To the Wonder
Redbud Pictures

STARRING Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
WRITTEN BY Terrence Malick
PRODUCED BY Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green
DIRECTED BY Terrence Malick

SHOT BY Emmanuel Lubezki
EDITED BY A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa
MUSIC BY Hanan Townshend
DISTRIBUTED BY Magnolia Pictures

Screened 2013-04-05

This marks the Malick tipping point. Existing members of the Cult of Malick may rejoice: he has risen, returned to you. He will have four new projects released in the next two years – this to complement the four films he previously made over 30+ years – and now the name Malick will spread with the fatalistic momentum of a zombie apocalypse. None will be spared. My enjoyment of To the Wonder, I would like to think, largely results from a complete divorce from the hype machine surrounding the man and his works.

Ben Affleck plays our virtually silent protagonist Neil, who, to the best of my knowledge, is a surveyor for suburban housing tracts (cursory investigation informs me he is an environmental inspector, a lateral move in terms of vagueness). While vacationing in France he meets Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, and the two fall in love at Normandy’s Wonder of the West, the splendorous Mont Saint Michel – and so Marina decides to take her daughter, Tatiana, from the throngs and urban corridors of Paris to begin a new life with Neil in Oklahoma. At first the two lovers create a happy home for Tatiana and one another, but in the moments when Marina is left alone she gradually seems to endure emotional or spiritual atrophy. Why is this happening to her? Is it specific to Marina, or is this any healthy person’s reaction to life in America? Marina’s relationship to Neil seems to naturally expire at the same time as her visa – so Marina takes Tatiana back to Paris, leaving Neil no choice but to fall in love with his old grade school acquaintance Jane, played by Rachel McAdams. Jane seems to be a more appropriate match for Neil, so it’s with mild reluctance that we accept Marina back into the picture when she decides that life in Paris is somehow more empty than it had been with Neil. The old demons return, seemingly manifested in Marina’s spiteful new Spanish acquaintance who has a solution to everything American, and who infects Marina with this egoistic vitriol. And finally, placed into the film’s empty spaces with very little relevance to the rest, we occasionally follow the faithless and tortured Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, another man infected by emptiness, at war with emptiness, and a lost expatriate soul to which Marina can connect – or could connect, had that footage not been excised (Bardem needn’t despair because we’re told that Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper all had roles which were completely cut from the final product). Without the footage Quintana appears as just another ill man on the plain. He visits hopeless drug addicts, prisoners, all forms of the indigent, the wretched – wretched souls which, bafflingly to him, seem to have a better grasp of faith than himself. Their need outweighs his.

Every country has its peculiar charms, and it is easy for we Americans to lose sight of those qualities which can at once seem intoxicating to foreigners; Marina’s first impressions of the rolling Midwestern fields and extensively demarcated suburban boxes are, really, quite filled with wonder: “A land so calm. Honest. Rich.” The film left me with a number of feelings about this America we share; notably that it was and is still The West, the land where towns are reinvented from the ground up, and importantly a land of vast expanses – between property and between people. Even inside Neil’s home, in a suburban housing development, the atmosphere is made to feel extremely alienating. Malick’s camera focuses much attention on blank walls, blank corridors, spacious rooms that somehow feel like cells – huge, empty houses filled with huge, empty spaces. Perhaps it is just my own current bent, but at the heart of To the Wonder I saw a film about American Emptiness, a possible critique of a way of life which naturally alienates its citizens from one another. It is Malick’s first film set in modern times, and this little theory of mine will be tested by his three upcoming features.

Neil is the center of the film, but he does not have a “will” as such – we, like the female characters, are briefly drawn into his orbit to see what happens. He seems very sweet but is positively elusive – there’s one point where Jane says, “I know that strong feelings make you uneasy,” and this is news to us, or prompts a nod with, “Ah, right. Of course he is. That fits.” Like all of Malick’s films, To the Wonder is interspersed with the narration of an inner monologue from a deeply spiritual protagonist who is usually engaged in an attempted dialectic with Our Maker – in this case, from Marina. This narration is always spoken softly, meekly, that of an innocent, inquisitive soul overwhelmed by the feeling of Being, and all knowingly elusive to the viewer.

Mr. Malick inspires because of his disciplined and moral approach to all things; I lump Mr. Malick into the same ballpark as Tolstoy and Mike Leigh, born moralizers, seemingly only concerned with the Al-Sirat – “the path.” Malick doesn’t script his films, but, according to Kurylenko, “Paints in the editing room. The production process is just him getting his colors. He gets the full palette of the story.” I admire Malick’s humility, a trait that seems to be diminishing in inverse proportion to that which collective narcissism grows. I would speculate that what most inspires others about Mr. Malick is his depth of appreciation – what else is the purpose of art, after all, and of religion? One could argue that religion makes capable the highest possible level of aesthetic appreciation – and Tolstoy would be the one to eventually argue that all art which is not in service of pious appreciation is decadent and thereby sinful.

But how rude of me – surely you’ve grown weary of watching one million young white men fellate Mr. Malick. I know I have! Where do my criticisms lie? Here’s one: it’s officially getting old to watch free girls spin around and giggle in open fields. You’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times – like birds in flight. Another: I realize that auteurs basically do one thing, but I wouldn’t mind a little irony, a little humor – somewhere. Anywhere. And for the hat trick: some lines of the now cliched Malickian narration are more successful than others. “What is this love that loves us? From nowhere. From all around. You, cloud. You love me too.” If your heart happens to be tuned to the same frequency as Malick’s this may have special meaning, but I’m sure you all know some person whose eyes would roll, agonized. One final criticism will be directed not at Malick but the MPAA: since Olga’s breasts are briefly visible in one single shot, this film is rated R. Yet again, the decision-makers at the MPAA have demonstrated to us that they are cowardly, sniveling infants who clearly are incapable of functioning in any real world that most of us inhabit. For shame! Desecrating this beautiful film from Terrence Malick!

A final note: my screening of To the Wonder took place in Chicago’s old faithful, the Lake Street screening room, where Roger Ebert spent a great, great deal of time. This, the morning after, found his once reserved seat bearing flowers and found the room more bustling than I imagine it has ever been. Ebert’s last review was for To the Wonder, having received a screener disc in advance. Many would argue that if you’ve got to go, then going out on a Malick film wouldn’t be a bad way to do it.

written by David Ashley

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