There’s something missing.
Brace yourself, readers, this is going to be a painfully positive review of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2013). There are so many reasons not to like this movie if you are a populist at heart as I am. This is an art house film if ever there was one. There is very little dialogue—since the actors didn’t work off of a script—a terrific story here about someone who thought he was just an extra—and the narration is in a whisper, more poetic, and less plot-driven than even Malick’s usual fare. The narrative itself is rather difficult to follow what with the not talking and all as well as the relatively frequent cuts. Walk down a street. Cut. Walking into the house. Cut. Walking out of the house. Cut. Looking at a plane fly through a gorgeous sky. These are things that I associate with pretension and boredom and yet, by God, I loved it. I loved all but a single moment of it. It was so good that I bought The Tree of Life (2011) sight unseen on Blu-Ray. Take your patience pills and go find a theater that is playing To the Wonder.
Neil (Ben Affleck) is in Paris with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), his lover. She loves him passionately and wants to be in his life but is cautious of his feelings. She also has a daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). Neil takes them to America and they live in a cookie-cutter development for a while. Neil is an environmental surveyor for an energy company of some kind. He goes around testing the water and soils for toxins. Marina is at home and speaks some with the neighbors or with the local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), while Tatiana goes to school. But things are uncomfortable and unsettled. When Marina goes back to France after her visa runs out, Neil begins a relationship with a rancher, Jane (Rachel McAdams), and occasionally seeks the counsel of Father Quintana. Quintana, himself, is undergoing a major crisis of faith and is attempting to hold on against the reality he faces.
Where to begin? I suppose I’ll begin where Malick began and that’s at Mont Saint-Michel, France. If there has ever been a more beautifully shot film, then I want to see it and then freeze time. Such as it is, the time freeze sounds perfectly acceptable if I only got to see To the Wonder on repeat. I will not even waste time putting up screenshots to which your lowly computer screen could not possibly do justice. Malick films movement and the most beautiful landscapes, though it is clear that those landscapes are made more beautiful by the observation that Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki share with us.
I had the conscious thought during the movie that this movie was shot 100% to my taste in images—close to the people and far away from everything else. It also consisted of a series of moments. It’s almost as though the entire film was a montage sequence enveloping these peoples’ lives. I’m almost astounded at how well it moved the story and emotion forward while being quick and relatively non-repetitive. Compare To the Wonder, in this respect, to Spring Breakers (2013). That movie used montages in the more traditional fashion—i.e. to bridge two parts of a story with brief images of the intervening events—and yet with far too much repetition and superficiality. It is like the difference between a teenager’s poetic ruminations on death and John Donne. Malick is the master that slowly builds out an emotion and Korine has only sentiment and confuses something felt again with something felt anew. And Malick manifests that mastery with the images and the editing (edited superbly by A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, and Mark Yoshikawa). Malick’s movies just make me want to get my camera and start taking pictures of grass. This one moreso than the others I’ve seen. To the Wonder is like an American Baraka (1992) with gorgeous images mixed with a regular, dramatic movie.
The second half of the Baraka comparison is the music. The soundtrack—blissfully catalogued by IMBD, and available on Amazon, thank you, thank you, thank you—is peerless in its selection and implementation. Virtually every piece is classical or in the classical form. Credit goes to Hanan Townshend for the original score, but I couldn’t say, while I was in the theater, which moments were his and which were not. Original pieces include Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Gorecki (which I have just purchased), The Isle of the Dead, Op.29 by Rachmaninoff, The Seasons and June by Tchaikovsky, some Wagner, and others. Now that I’ve checked out the soundtrack on Amazon, I now know how excellent Townshend’s work is. It’s like a meeting of Philip Glass and Hans Zimmer (with a little more Glass than Zimmer). Very effective. I bought the soundtrack too.
This guy, Malick, knows what he’s doing. This is art house stuff, like I said, but I feel like it is American art house. There’s something real and rugged to his expression that is very unlike the ironic or surrealist tendencies you might find in foreign material. I never got the sense that we had ever left the real world or that someone’s mental state was being exhibited anywhere but in the performances. This isn’t expressionism. Either that or Malick and I see the world identically. Man, it just looks and sounds so good that if you have an ounce of patience and taste, you will thoroughly enjoy yourself. In that way, the lack of dialogue is something of a blessing. All there is is pain and joy and beauty and sadness. My kind of movie.
Performances were uniformly terrific. Apparently, Affleck replaced Christian Bale. It’s probable that Bale might have made an easier sight as the exceedingly detached man of few emotions, but Affleck did so very well. I almost said “brilliantly” but I don’t know that the role warranted that kind of praise. I feel very similarly about Rachel McAdams, who didn’t replace anybody, as playing her role quite well and against the, shall we say, more vacuous type she ordinarily portrays. In Malick’s world, everyone is coy and thoughtful and extremely comfortable in silence and gentle breezes. Grass is their medium and they walk through it at length. In fact, walking comprises the vast majority of Affleck’s performance. Kurylenko is brilliant. The role is quite demanding in that she must be borderline crazy while also commanding our sympathies. She does. This performance makes me feel better about Oblivion (2013) on Friday.
Is it even worth your time to describe how unbelievably good Bardem is? He plays a priest in a crisis of faith. If you’ve read this far and you’re still worried that this is going to be too arty for you—and if not, I apologize for the condescension—a crisis of faith probably isn’t going to be the warm, encouraging words you were looking for. If you’re that kind of viewer who worries about accessibility, you might think of faith crises as face-clawing melodrama and shouting at the sky with dialogical gems like, “I have such DOUBTS!” This ain’t that kind of crisis, this ain’t that kind of movie. I don’t think that anyone can safely claim there are any pretensions or condescension in this movie. The opposite is true. This movie treats you like a grown-up and challenges your viewing skills.
So I said that I loved all but one moment of the movie and that unloved moment is the very end. First of all, I want a clean ending by either wrapping up a relationship or by telling us roughly how it’s going to go for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t strike me as in conflict with being treated like a grown-up. The final image, beautiful as always, is probably a symbol of something. That kind of thing isn’t really my wheelhouse. All the doorknobs being red sounds like a total waste of time for producer and viewer alike. A woman coming out of the theater said, “That was all symbolism. I’ve outgrown symbolism.” I’d quibble with the “all” and I’m not sure it’s a matter of “outgrown”, but I feel similarly. But I had a great time.