There are few directors in Hollywood who refuse to be boxed in, and refuse to compromise their unique visions to cater to general audiences. Terrence Malick is one of those people. Despite a career that spans over forty years, he’s only ever directed six films. He’s a perfectionist, a visual poet who could shoot an entire movie in two months, but could take three years editing that one feature. That dedication is what has brought us great films such as The Thin Red Line (one of my favorite movies of all time), and 2011’s divisive The Tree of Life. It’s something of a wonder that his follow up to The Tree of Life came only two years afterwards. This is To the Wonder, which once again sees the director taking a meditative approach to life and love’s philosophical nature, but does so in one of the most experimental fashions in his career.
Arguably the most straightforward story Malick has ever told, the semi-autobiographical film follows the life of an American man (Ben Affleck) and a Europeon woman (Olga Kurylenko), whose relationship hits frequent ups and downs. When the woman returns to Paris after her visa expires, the man meets a friend from his childhood (Rachel McAdams), engaging in a fleeting affair. When the woman returns from Paris, the two lovers rekindle their romance, but the highs and lows of their daily lives are just as hectic as always, told through much subtlety, visual poetry, and so many other ways that I won’t dare spoil them for you.
Whether or not you can get into the style will determine how you feel. From head to toe, this is a Malick picture, told as always through ethereal imagery, infrequent dialogue and whispered voiceovers, montage, metaphysical pondering, deliberate ambiguity, and all leading up to an end that will leave you scratching your head asking “What?” Honestly, I’d have been shocked if I wasn’t dumbfounded by the end. Basically, if you’ve never liked Malick’s previous films, you’re going to hate this film. But, if you’re willing to give yourself over to this movie, get lost and wrapped into it, look deep beneath the surface, and give it the multiple viewings it demands, you’ll find much food for thought to appreciate.
And that’s the key phrase: Food for thought. There’s much to digest here. One part of the movie is a character study of this couple, and their constant emotional workouts. Like in several of his films, Malick paints us a poignant picture of love, and the modern day aspect feels very personal to the auteur. Through fragility, anger, grief, joy, contemplation, it’s a lot to cover, but it’s done well. Another element, much less obvious, is the silent subtext throughout. I don’t know if any one answer is the definitive answer, but what I got out of the film was the idea of reaching for the souls in need, giving them joy and helping them find purpose in their lives, both effectively translated through visual simplicity.
Other useful storytelling figures are Malick’s cast. Malick’s films have never been much of an acting showcase (although Elias Koteas somehow managed to break through in Thin Red Line), but they always served a higher purpose, and this film is no different, headlined by the phenomenal Olga Kurylenko. Never before has she been able to stretch her legs like this, and give a layered, pure, emotionally raw performance, and she makes every second believable. Another noteworthy character is a priest, played here by Javier Bardem, who doesn’t have much screentime, but leaves a lasting impact. He reaches out to lost souls, guides them to the divine, but his own faith is also challenged at the same time. He serves as Malick’s metaphor for belief in the otherworldly. I honestly would have loved to see this character get a movie of his own, and really dive deeper into his conflict, but he still leaves an impact, and that’s all that matters.
Much of Malick’s crew from The Tree of Life are back, and they’re here to help convey the hidden meanings just as passionately as Malick. Of course, one has to give major credit to DP Emmanuel Lubezki, and while his work here may not reach the heights of Children of Men or The Tree of Life, it’s still a necessary tool to tell Malick’s tale, richly evoking unique tones for each moment, and as eye candy goes, it’s absolutely enchanting. If I have anything to complain about, and maybe it’s a stupid criticism, but, I felt the movie was too straightforward at times. While the deliberate ambiguity is here, I don’t think it’s as satisfying as it felt for Malick’s last film, and at times, I felt like it was a bit too literal. Then again, I could be the one taking these things too literally.
After all, it’s a film that must be analyzed for meanings, meaning multiple viewings will be required. Seeing it once just isn’t a thorough basis, not to me at least. I’ve said this before about The Tree of Life, but I’ll say it again. It could be years before we’re able to truly grasp this movie. It could take a hundred viewings before we fully understand it, picking apart individual moments trying to figure out one central idea, and that makes it perfect for debating. There’s so many visual metaphors, subtext, secret meanings, and even social parables possibly waiting to be unearthed Everyone deserves to see this movie for themselves, and make up their own minds on what they’ve seen, and then engage in discussion over such things. It’ll rack our brains, but I have a feeling the payoff would be rewarding. Leave it to Malick to give us numerous films like that, inviting us with both a challenging, but completely hypnotizing experience. It does make giving it an actual grade pointless, but on first impression, possibly subject to change, I can say that it didn’t disappoint.
**** / *****