Rhyme, Rhythm, and the Love in Between

To the Wonder (2013)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick (Magnolia Pictures)

It is an unfair assumption to read Robert Frost and expect Herman Melville. And as we come to define great poetry as a subdivision of literature, why do we not do the same for cinema? Sure, we can classify material as arthouse, experimental, or avant-garde, but the word “poetic” tends to personify a particular feeling aroused from specific styles of filmmaking, rather than coming to define that style itself. I say this because it has become quite clear that Terrence Malick is one of cinema’s only remaining poets. Using the example of Frost, which may cause those to cringe who are more familiar with his work than myself, we may come to expect character and storytelling within certain instances. But these elements are conveyed only through poetic conventions, rather than the dramatic ones we can expect from a great novelist such as Melville. Therefore, it becomes quite absurd that those familiar with Malick’s work, beginning with Badlands in 1973 and leaving off with The Tree of Life in 2011, walk into an art piece such as To the Wonder and expect a novel, rather than a poem.

Criticize Malick’s film all you want for a lack of character and storytelling development, but only do so if it fails to achieve these aspects through the poetic structure it ambitiously tackles. There are no dinosaurs here, but in a way, Terry has never been more abstract. Sure, The Tree of Life showed us the creation of the universe, but this was rooted in an experimental narrative that could be thematically understood to a somewhat large degree. To the Wonder possibly covers the least thematic ground of any Malick film, yet the approach taken has never been so gracefully unrestrained, so beautifully capable of visualizing emotion and spirit, so brutally truthful and longingly hopeful.

Ben Affleck, in a performance that redefines subtle, is simply a masculine presence; this is a character, yes, but more of a person than anything else. His little dialogue contributes to his dance within the beautiful landscape of life itself, darting in and out of love, hiding emotions and unexpectedly unleashing them. His place within the film is one that not many could play, yet this is not because of his conventional acting abilities. When the camera starts rolling in a Malick film, chances are, lines are not being read off a script before the lens; when ‘action’ is called, ‘acting’ is not an option – those in front of the camera simply have to be what the film requires of them. Olga Kurylenko plays the woman he falls in love with in Paris, while Rachel McAdams takes on the role of his childhood sweetheart. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem encapsulates the faith-worn priest who mirrors their struggles.

This all takes place within the gorgeously shot locations of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked with Malick on The Tree of Life and The New World. Visual effects aside, the imagery is nearly as astonishing as the prior. Using almost entirely natural light, the equally natural world is displayed with remarkable beauty, nature clashing with the infallible shadows of our characters. Much of the film takes place in a secluded area of Oklahoma, an area seemingly open to the fields surrounding it, yet constricted by the emotional and spiritual conflicts between the characters. It almost feels as though Malick drops the characters within this miniature ecosystem and simply observes as human nature takes hold (an idea I also derived from Malick’s Days of Heaven). Yet their actions are not spelled out through transition scenes and elaborate motivations; they are instead conveyed through the rhythm of the editing, the actors’ body language, voiceover (cryptic in some instances, quite blunt in others), Hanan Townshend’s lovely score, and an incredible sense of visual juxtaposition.

Much of To the Wonder is told through French narration, and it is no surprise that the film feels more European than American in its construction, even more so than Malick’s other films (influence from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour immediately comes to mind).  The film uses this to its advantage as it explores how some lands seem unavoidably foreign to those who have not been raised within them, much as some audience members will not be accustomed to Malick’s kaleidoscopic method of filmmaking.  It also shows how those who share native lands may inevitably form a bond that cannot be easily severed, but also how this could provide false seductions equal to the allure of something foreign and different.  This is captured through the beauty that Malick and Lubezki present on both continents, yet the otherworldly in each is shown with equal measure.

And thus, this is Malick’s greatest talent – enunicating the spirituality present within everyday occurrence, the divine nature in simply living one’s life.  The story here is all of our stories rolled into one.  Why then, does it feel like nothing we’ve ever seen, even if we are accustomed to Malick’s visual fetishes?  Somehow, at least to me, it feels fresh every time.  Possibly because we are new people every time we sit down in the theater; life does not play before our eyes as it once did.

The waning faith of Bardem’s priest signifies a marriage based less on love than the hope for love; the failure of our highest hopes due to factors that lie outside of the feelings we hold most dear.  These feelings come not from ourselves, but from a greater power.  Our decisions lie in how to act upon them.  Our faith and love, whether in God or another person, can present the opportunity for one’s own vision of salvation.

To the Wonder was the last film that Roger Ebert reviewed, and it would be sinful if I did not admit here that he has inspired the way I write about cinema more than any other human being.  His final paragraph reads, “There will be many who find [the movie] elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

So I suppose you can buy the whole “Malick is a poet thing,” or you don’t have to.  Your choice.  It is also your decision whether to like or dislike his films, be completely off-put by them or find them absolutely soul-enriching.  But after reading that final review, the romantic in me can’t help but think of Ebert as a “soul in need.”  Yet considering all I’ve read by the film critic about his peaceful views regarding death, that is probably untrue.  And maybe some of us will never have such a feeling until we approach death ourselves, or maybe a fraction of people feel it all the time.  All I know for sure is that Terrence Malick, never more self-assured with his process than in To the Wonder, gives us things that we sometimes don’t consciously understand we need. It couldn’t be more clear that some may not need what he supplies, but I feel as though I do, and as a viewer, that is enough.

Maybe more would embrace the content if they were able to become comfortable with the presentation.  But that gentle, yet visceral “jolt” is part of the experience; it’s an immersive, sensory experience with sustenance for the heart and mind.  It may not be what most viewers are looking for, but one never doubts that it is precisely what Terrence Malick wanted to share, despite how many hours of footage were shot.  The feelings are there in the final cut, and they follow you outside of the darkness.

Consider this bit of voiceover from Bardem – “You shall love whether you like it or not. Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling; you shall love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. You fear your love has died; perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.”

Prose or poetry?  Combined with imagery and music, it becomes cinema, or rather, Terry’s vision of it.  And if there is a single compliment that one cannot avoid giving him, it is that he has stayed true to it, and will likely never break until his body becomes free of the soul in need.