To the Wonder – Art 6/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 5/5
No difficult film should be approached lightheartedly, and if you appreciate the filmmakers’ mode, or rather their cinematic language, they shouldn’t be read in another one. The foremost disconnect cinema goers have with Terrence Malick and his films (of a great many) is that they don’t know what they’re looking at, but it’s pretty, and they just wish it’d be something they can access and digest more easily. It’s especially the case in his latest offering To the Wonder, which has been described as the most idiosyncratic of his entire career; “almost too Malicky”, as one reviewer put it. To access and digest Malick, you should be warned that it takes a lot more work than you might typically invest in film.
Regardless of Malick’s intention to speak on the universally adored, transcending, and tried theme of love, he loses half the audience. Malick commits the sin of self-indulgence by making something quasi-autobiographical and tailoring it exactly how he alone can inhabit the dream. The mostly silent Ben Affleck works as his avatar witnessing this dream. Others are picked off one-by-one through Malick’s sheer foreignness to the straightforward novelistic narrative we’re conditioned to expect in the unsaid ironclad rules of pop storytelling. Heretofore Malick has either embraced the novelistic narrative outright, such as in Badlands, or a blend of novel in verse like a filmic Eugene Onegin, such as his more recent work. Now he’s gone pure verse, where his film’s purpose is to poetically spell out the feelings of people’s souls instead of giving significant plot turns and twists to expose their character through events, and it’s damn maddening to those who don’t know what to expect.
The result is the most poorly rated film of his career. His previous work stunned with his imagery, but the audience was mostly adrift anyway. To the Wonder has found diminishing returns on what some describe as Malick’s “nature photography” or “diamond commercial” bent. Looking at the distance between each of his films, and the relative proximity between To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, some have said he should have waited a bit.
Yes, I’m here to defend not just Malick, but this supposed turkey of a film, and say that most criticism is a bunch of horse apples. To the Wonder is just as amazing as any of Malick’s previous films, and there is no living filmmaker doing anything as impressive (though many come close). If there’s been some measure of decline, it’s not been in the quality of his art, but the quality of his targeting, or his ability to please a wide audience. In a world where nobody is forced to like anything they don’t want to, that is no sin at all.
The key to decoding any Malick film is often found right at the beginning. In fact it just about gives everything away, though with these visual masterpieces that’s a vast embellishment. The Thin Red Line opens with two American soldiers escaping from World War II and hiding with South Pacific natives who are existing peacefully and permanently in nature despite the industrialized convulsions of hell surrounding them. The New World opens with Richard Wagner’s Vorspiel to Das Rheingold, as Pocahontas and her sisters are paralleled to the Rhinemaidens, with Colin Farrell imprisoned on the way to his fate. The Tree of Life opens with Jessica Chastain explaining the choice between nature and grace, their benefits and risks, leading to a choice you’ll have to make in the film. Is Malick depicting grace or nature, belief or agnosticism, through the creation of the universe, the dinosaur that takes pity on its prey, and a 1950s Texas that perhaps mirrors his own upbringing.
To the Wonder opens with a poetic rendering of Olga Kurylenko’s story to come, as she’s helplessly drawn to the flame (unambiguously describing love). I can see the confusion on people’s faces when she says “One, two, one”. The easiest way to draw that into a picture is to show two monkeys fucking and then going about their business. In many ways, To the Wonder is a continuation of The Tree of Life’s central choice. Reduced to the easiest understanding, Malick is asking should we look to marriage as being in the manner of grace, in the Christian ideal of agape love, the “through thick and through thin”, caring in sickness and in health, sacrifical kind of love. Or should we rather accept love at its most natural, as a passionate booty call whose time comes and goes, regardless of whether the players are good people or not. Malick doesn’t present any tragedy or drama to hash out this matter. He simply depicts three people as they go about this business, and shows them embracing the flame, and its costs. Because honestly, do we truly need the ancient training wheels of dramatists done different for the ten thousandth time to really ‘get’ a love story right this time?
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Kurylenko’s daughter, who’s been brought from France to live with her mom in Texas, tells Ben Affleck that he should get married to her mom, and that will settle everything. Olga hushes her daughter, like “shut the fuck up kid, you’re ruining this delicate balance”. Affleck looks on his mistress and her child with guilt. Children naively pierce the bullshit with aplomb. Later, after developing affection for one another, Olga’s daughter realizes that despite the bizarre arrangement her self-loathing mother has consented to, Ben isn’t really a bad guy, and love exists and dissipates with or without a ring on it. When Ben and Olga split, it’s the second split the little girl has seen, with Olga previously divorcing her father, whom she grows closer to later on. When she’s leaving again for France, the daughter and Ben have both found familial love, despite him not being her real father, or even a future step-father. She knows that even though Ben is lazily taking advantage of her mother’s weakness and neediness in erotic love, he is far from a villain.
After Olga and Ben flame out, Ben happens upon his childhood sweetheart Rachel McAdams, and they rekindle their own flame. This love too runs its course. The fact that she’s a wonderful person, and maybe perfect for him isn’t enough. There is nothing dirty about her, except for the manure on her boots from running a ranch, that makes the blood boil. If love were a marketplace, you’d always be trading up, and most do. They throw caution and a perfect match to the wind as they embrace the best possible result, however long it may last. A perfect match for a few days is more important than a non-match for an eternity. So Ben dumps the earthy McAdams and tells Kurylenko to get on a plane so he can git sum of that mentally frayed sweaty joy. Having zero self-confidence and zero purpose, Olga leaps at the opportunity, only to burrow into emptiness once again. Her friend comes to town later to remind her that her vitality is bigger and more meaningful than the Texas oafs surrounding her, but it seems the friend is mostly talking about her self, and not Olga.
To round out Malick’s conception of the types of love, a conscience emerges in Javier Bardem, who is playing a priest at a diminishing church. His love for God is questionable, maybe even lapsed. However, his expression of that love, the love that Jesus preached to show for the dregs of society – the crack heads, mentally handicapped, those who can’t help themselves – is hardly diminished. The question here is whether grace is disembodied from the Church, to where it exists outside of a code, without a supernatural hand, or instead whether that sort of love isn’t long for the world when surrounded by the harsh fangs of nature that cuts people down, eroding their spirit until they’re rotting in the ground. Bardem sees love as the one sustaining force for all being, the one thing that stays the withering of the spirit, and is more than happy to spread it, even if he gets none from God. In Bardem’s understanding of love, he runs to the flame like a firefighter, while to Kurylenko the flames suck her in against her will. Like everybody else, they’re both burned to a crisp in the end.
Malick’s autobiographical subtext is worth considering very briefly. After he filmed Days of Heaven with Richard Gere (also about a love triangle), Malick fucked off to France for a while to study and teach. He married a French woman and brought her back to America, where they eventually divorced. He then married his childhood sweetheart, but that’s where the comparison stops (and we needn’t dig deeper for more), because he’s still married to her. You have to wonder how she reacted to this film, though. Maybe similar to how Giulietta Masina reacted to her husband Federico Fellini parading the fact he’s banging all these starlets through allegory in his film 8 1/2, but maybe not so bunga bunga. Think about it: Malick is admitting to himself that he ought to have dumped his wife and pursued the French woman again, because she was superior. But he tempers this feeling (if only to keep the plates from being thrown at him) by making this an exercise in reminding himself of the futility. The film ends with Ben and Olga realizing they’re just not right for one another, and their romance is too dirty, too earthy, too natural, to exist permanently. Malick is reassuring himself he chose right.
Olga is the star of this film, and it sounds like she earned that right by threatening Malick not to leave her performance on the cutting room floor with Rachel Weisz and a few others (yeah, they were in the film, kind of but not really). Compared to previous women in lead Malick roles, it’s difficult to say she exceeded any of them, but competently captured a recurring archetype in his work: the spritely woman stuck in preadolescence (also done in The New World by Q’orianka Kilcher). This archetype may be finally extinguished, with this film as its sendoff from Malick’s psyche. So far, only Sean Penn has acted as a possible Malick avatar, as the grown version of his own infancy in Tree of Life. Penn didn’t get what the film was about, and most of his scenes were cut in that as well. I’d say that’s a failure. Affleck gives a very “Bloomy” role here: that is to say, in my nod to Kingdom of Heaven, he’s amazing at serving his role as a silent lead.
If you approach this film and engage with its message, you may very well enjoy it. If you don’t give it a chance, don’t pay attention, only hear mumbling and see pretty shots of wheat fields and child-like meandering, you’re doing it wrong.
(As an addendum: much has been made of the twirling. I think commenters are just dizzy in this regard. Olga Kurylenko’s character seems to be a professional or amateur dancer, and her daughter enjoys acting like her mom. Otherwise I don’t think anybody else does it in the film.)