Over a career spanning 40 years, Terrence Malick has directed six widely acclaimed films. His latest, To the Wonder, is no less revelatory — or divisive, says Joseph Fahim.
What was the first Terrence Malick film you ever saw? Mine was The Thin Red Line in 1999. I was in high school, discovering new forms of art, literature, music and film, and trying to find my voice in the process. By that time I had watched countless hours of film by some of the greatest filmmakers in history, but nothing I had seen before could have prepared me for Malick. For me, a director was first and foremost a storyteller with political and personal ideologies that habitually shaped his or her films. That wasn’t the case with Malick. For the first time in my life, I realised that a director could be a poet, an artist, a philosopher. Malick was not only revelatory in terms of his mesmerising aesthetics; The Thin Red Line was a deeply spiritual film that haunted me for many, many years.
Since then I’ve become a Malick acolyte, eagerly anticipating his new films, even though the notoriously reclusive filmmaker has directed only six movies in 40 years. I’m always ready to bask in the glorious, divine beauty of his worlds, and that was the case with To the Wonder, Malick’s sixth feature, which was released only 16 months after The Tree of Life. Although it won the Palme d’Or, Malick received some of the worst reviews of his career for Tree, and now Wonder has been misjudged as a rushed follow-up.
"Pretty to a fault" was the typical criticism of Tree. Many felt that the same elements that have distinguished Malick’s entire oeuvre — the internal monologues, the magic hour photography, the Andrew Wyeth-inspired images, the Christian overtones, the countless nature shots, the ideas about being and time from Heidegger, the triumph of mood over narrative — have run their course. Self-parody is a common note sounded by To the Wonder’s detractors.
This is the first Malick film I can find fault with, but it’s certainly not the shipwreck several critics have declared it. The breathtaking sense of wonder found in all of his works is still there; the sweeping beauty of his frames continues to astonish, the philosophical inquiries he explores in each of his films continues to resonate strongly. A transitional work of sorts, To the Wonder is not flawless, but there are plenty of qualities that elevate it above most films showing in cinemas these days.
Unlike The Tree of Life, Wonder adopts a more straightforward narrative. The film centers on a love triangle between Neil (Ben Affleck), an American environmental worker; Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a free-spirited French single mother; and Jane (Rachel McAdams), Neil’s old flame. Marina decides to move to Oklahoma (the place is never actually specified) with Neil, along with her daughter. Initial bliss is soon replaced by estrangement, and she returns to Paris. In her absence Neil begins an affair of sorts with Jane. A parallel subplot emerges with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a foreign priest, losing his faith.
Psychology has never been a Malick forte, and it would be pointless to dissect the characters’ motivations, especially since significant plot points are withheld (for example, we never know how Neil and Marina met or why they fell in love). Like his past films, To the Wonder looks, feels and moves like a reverie, seeping with sights, impressions and moods. The characters are simply fragments of a larger whole. Like those of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Malick’s characters reveal themselves through their gestures, poses and spatial relationships to one another. Malick is not interested in telling stories; he’s preoccupied with capturing feelings and fleeting moments in time.
To the Wonder is Malick’s first film set in the present, which produces another dimension to Malick’s Eden (the utopia he invokes in all his work): a sense of grace, compassion and innocence defying and challenging the unsparing, frosty reality of our times. It’s this grace that renders the film in parts such a strong emotional experience. There’s an acknowledgement of the here and now, and the unavoidable clash between the material and the spiritual — another staple of his films.
And while some have grown tired of the director’s signature style — every shot, every frame carrying a sense of awe, inviting the viewer to get lost in the sheer splendor — it shouldn’t be treated as a fad. Malick is one of the few filmmakers still asking the big questions about life, faith and existence. He’s also one of the rare ones treating the concept of love with great seriousness and respect.
As I said, To the Wonder is not without faults. For the first time in a Malick movie, the use of voiceover feels intrusive at times, even forced. Acting as extensions of the characters’ thoughts, or as contemplation of the grand themes materialising in their actions, the internal monologues lose their functionality this time around, slightly aiding the rhythm of the film but never feeling essential or illuminating.
Another misstep is the way Malick films Kurylenko, shooting her with the same dynamism used to portray the still landscapes, erasing the difference between the two. Her character is always in motion, dancing, constantly at odds with the serene landscapes, a conflict Malick fails to translate onscreen.
At its core, To the Wonder is a meditation on different forms of love (human, divine), faith and the ephemeral nature of life. But Malick’s latest poetic prayer is, above all, a sensory experience for the eyes, ears and heart. Whatever faults the film has, all is redeemed by a deeply poignant ending that seamlessly weaves all of Malick’s themes into one last act of grace — a miracle of hope.
Joseph Fahim is Chief Programmer of the Cairo International Film Festival.
Photo: Everett Collection/Rex