Written & Directed by Terrence Malick
The buzz, and the discussion, surrounding the latest film from Terrence Malick is unavoidable, especially when Terrence Malick is not just your favorite living film director, but your favorite of all time, like he is mine. Malick is unique. His films are unique, and I also find them very personal, which is why I feel I can easily connect to them on an emotional level. His methods of narrative are unorthodox at times, and non-existent at others. His latest, To the Wonder, is his worst reviewed film, with many, fans included, shocked at their inability to connect to the characters given the structure, or lack there of, of the film. After finally getting the chance to see the film myself, I can see what everybody is talking about, good and bad. I was amazed, wowed once again by the mastery of Malick.
I will start in by saying that this may very well be his most abstract in terms of a narrative structure. There is very minimal dialogue throughout, leaving it up to the viewer to pay attention and decipher the images of the story. From that we can gather that an American, Neil (Ben Affleck), falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while in France. The couple, along with Marina’s young daughter (Tatiana Chiline), travel back to his home in Oklahoma, where Marina struggles to adjust. They both grow cold, causing Marina to seek solace with a priest (Javier Bardem), who himself is struggling with his faith. Marina decides to move back to France, meanwhile Neil rekindles a relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a friend from earlier in his life. All four struggle to find their love, embrace it, and reconcile it.
In many ways, Malick’s latest vision is a bit of a conundrum. Coming out of the film I felt it was one of his least ambitious, a small story of simple love lost and found, so small it used so little dialogue. It seemed less majestic and less grand comparatively. But as I contemplated everything I took it during my two hour experience in the theater, I found what Malick has crafted here is a full of life, symbolism, beauty, love, and reflection. It is a complex, layered film with plenty to consume. Of course it goes without saying that a Malick film is visually stunning, and Emmanuel Lubezki gives us that with his cinematography, but Malick is also telling his story entirely through images, which is extremely daring, and will certainly be polarizing to audiences. Little is ever explained, reasons not given. It plays perfectly into what Malick is going for.
He paints with broad strokes because the themes of love and faith are broad. It can be applied to so many of our lives, and at so many points in them. They are universal themes, which is perhaps why Neil is such a shallow character. We know so very little about him that he works as a general representation of the male, which actually makes the film quite femininist in perspective. We see him flip from woman to woman quite seemlessly. We see him be the one who appears so distant and unhappy, bringing upon Marina and Jane a sense of want. Want of love, of more from him and the world around them. Yet Marina grovels at his feet, and when the fidelity cards are dealt against him, Neil is the one who dictates the direction of the relationship. Malick presents us with the double standard for our contemplation, just as any other theme in his films.
But perhaps what I found the most unnerving in the best possible way was Malick’s ability to insert symbolism in pretty much every single shot. Throughout he incorporates something here, something there that plays directly into what he is trying to say, which makes his bold decision to tell the story completely through images that much stronger and more successful. We see the dark an the light, the heavens and the Earth, the difference between love and lust, and the ebb and flow of everything. But what is most striking is the film’s ability to show us imperfection and incompletion. Neil and Marina’s house is full of empty rooms with unpacked boxes and resides in a half full, incomplete housing development. We get a beautiful sense of the imperfection of the human relationship, of love, of faith as the characters seek to find comfort in each other, and to strike the balance of compromise and true love.
What they all seek is the wonder of love, the Mont St. Michel where Neil and Marina first spent their days of love together, where the priest’s beloved faith is deeply rooted. But that island is only accessible part of the time, as the waves recede. Just as quickly as they recede, they will also rise, just as the roaring tide of life with rise and make the love we desire, that which we seek and need so dearly, seem miles away, impossible to attain. There are steps to climb to get there as well, and we will reach many staircases in our lives. What Malick has done here is present us with a complete thought, with complete sub thoughts; a fully realize concept which asks the greatest question of all, “why?” These are his thoughts and his alone, but they create a mood, an atmosphere. They spark reflection and contemplation within ourselves, and create a conversation amongst us, which is why I am so attracted to Malick’s musings, and why his personal thoughts become as universal as the themes he presents. One day I firmly believe this will be considered the misunderstood masterpiece of the great Terrence Malick.