Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of writer-director-philosopher Terrence Malick. I last wrote about his work when I posted a review of his phenomenal, transcendent masterpiece "The Tree of Life" here.
And "To The Wonder" shares some traits with "The Tree of Life." Both films have a narrative, which is to say there are characters in a setting and they do things and things happen to them. But this is incidental. Malick, unlike most filmmakers, is a director who truly utilizes the visual aspect of film purely for what it is. Both films propel their story forward visually. Sure, there are some lines of dialogue; mostly we are privy to characters thoughts via murmured inner monologues. But more than anything else, we witness the story. For a visual medium, it is a curiosity that more directors don't operate this way. But then telling a story visually means that your audience must be in possession of interpretive powers. And that is something one cannot count on in today's world. It's a supremely powerful way to tell a story since it bypasses intellect and taps directly into the subconscious, the imaginative part of ourselves where dreams are produced. As I wrote in my post about "The Tree of Life," dreams can only convey a narrative or an idea to us in one way: it shows us pictures. A dream can’t—and indeed does not need to—tell us what it wants us to know, it shows us. That is the language of signifiers. That is the primordial, pre-conscious language of our psyches, our souls. That is our first, original language before words. Watch. Look. See. Understand.
Some of the criticism leveled at this film centers on the lack of character development or motivation. I can see how one might come to that conclusion given the primarily visual nature of this work but Roger Ebert, in the very last review he wrote before he died, said of this film, "A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision. 'Well,' I asked myself, 'why not?' Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out?"
Unlike "The Tree of Life" which scrambles past and present with a vision of the future, the story here is fairly linear...but within that linear story, there are moments that shift, slide, repeat, happen again or next to each other. The result is beautiful, not like encountering an event but more like remembering an event, or even a dream, as Malick edits together snippets from the same moment, just out of order. Ostensibly, the story follows Neil (Ben Affleck), an American who, while in Paris for a period, falls in love with a lovely woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko). When he returns to the United States, she decides to take her ten-year old daughter and come with him. But things do not go well for many reasons including the eventual bitter unhappiness of Marina's daughter who went from life in Paris to life on the barren plains of Oklahoma, no friends, no culture to speak of, nothing to do and nowhere to go. Of course she misses and yearns for not only her life, but a sense of life in general. More on this theme later.
The contrast between the two locales couldn't be greater. From a land rich in history, art, and architecture, they move to a featureless land, living in a succession of featureless houses (there must be some kind of autobiographical compulsion on the part of Malick to show us so many subjective, below-eye-level shots of living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms), in a featureless life. With nothing outward, there is nowhere to look but inward. And this triggers something in Marina. She and her daughter return to Paris while Neil takes up with a woman he knew when he was much younger, Jane (Rachel McAdams).
And here we have another contrast. Whereas Marina is full of life of life, energy, and movement (she is in a near-constant state of playful dancing, twirling, or jumping) and has a loving, giggling relationship with her daughter, Jane has a painful past with a ne'er-do-well husband and dead daughter. Jane reads the Bible, looks down at the ground, and feels mopey, heavy, inert. It is ironic that visually (on a symbolic level), the darker woman is light and the fair woman is somber.
But Neil cannot commit to Jane either and they end badly. Meanwhile in Paris, Marina has seen her daughter return to live with her ex-husband. She cannot find a job. She misses Oklahoma. So she returns and she and Neil get back together, marrying. But this too soon turns sour.
Through this all, Father Quintana the town priest in Oklahoma (Javier Bardem) counsels not only the impoverished residents of this farming town, the prisoners, the homeless, but Neil and Marina. He seems to be a man busy in the community, but we often see him wandering, lost, unsure, without personal purpose or direction. We hear his inner thoughts talking to the God he cannot see or touch or hear or experience directly. We are allowed in to his crisis of faith. And just like "The Tree of Life," this contemplation of religion is actually an anti-religious statement. Malick does not give Father Quintana or us comfort, or a sign of divine presence.
While I was watching this film, I felt Neil was a cold, selfish man, unable to commit. But then with more time, I felt my perception of him shift. He is not a bad man. And Marina is not all good. And Jane is a contradiction as well. All our characters are trying their best, trying to get somewhere, trying to reach for something. But 1) Neil is not at ease in his relationships, 2) Jane yearns for a kind of stability yet life for her is stagnant, and 3) and 4) Father Quintana and Marina are the ones who, above the others, want something even more, something more than this world can offer. Like all of Malick's films, this may be about certain people in a certain place at a certain time, but ultimately, it is about matters that are metaphysical. And I mean that in the literal sense: things that are beyond the physical. Everyone has a yearning within them. It is the theme of existence itself. There is no divine presence, just an endless succession of here and now and each other, or as Marina puts it in one of her inner monologues, "an avalanche of tenderness."
Like I have said, the vehicle of this story is the film itself--the visuals--and Malick is known for capturing absolutely ravishing scenes like Mont St. Michel in fog or a herd of somnolent bison in tall grass. For "To The Wonder," he and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also lensed "The Tree of Life") startlingly used all natural light to oftentimes breathtaking effect. Sunlight filtered through trees, the golden light of the setting sun across a plain, light reflecting through con trails in the sky...in addition to the themes I have spoken of, this film is about light. And in a way, perhaps light stands in for the thing that seems to be beyond everyone's reach, the thing none of the characters can actually grasp and hold and keep.
Recommend? Oh. Yes.