I’m certain Nietzche, Aquinas, Kant, and Descartes are covered in every single undergrad Philosophy curriculum in existence, but how come there isn’t a Philosophy course on the filmmaker Terrence Malick? He has made a total of six full-length features in the last forty years – ‘Badlands’, ‘Days of Heaven’, ‘The Thin Red Line’, ‘The New World’, ‘The Tree of Life’, and most recently, ‘To The Wonder’. Three of these pictures were made within the last eight years, but all six of them pose an eternal philosophical question – “What is the meaning of it all?”
I’ve been a fan of Mr.Malick’s work for a long time. Upon its initial release in 1998, I even ranked ‘The Thin Red Line’ higher than Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – my moviegoing friends consider that statement as absurd today as they did fifteen years ago when I had to present my review in a Media Studies class.
‘To The Wonder’ is Malick’s weakest picture to date. While I’m not recommending the film, I should state right up front that it does serve as an efficient travelogue for those who are unable to travel this year. ‘To The Wonder’ is a romantic melodrama about two characters falling in and out love. Like most of Malick’s work, this one follows a nonlinear structure but the love story within the film appears to contain a through line. Oklahoman boy Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Ukrainian girl Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France. She has a ten-year old daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). We experience the first joyful stage of this relationship, with screensaver-esque backgrounds. Nothing is visually drab or ugly in this Malickian universe. With the help of his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezski, Mr.Malick has created a world that is ravishingly gorgeous. The Parisian setting presents dream-like opportunities for visual artists – the limestone buildings, the architectural aspects of a cathedral (counterforts and conical spires), and cobblestone streets. Mr.Malick has always been able to find beauty anywhere, and these early moments of the film illustrate his gift wonderfully.
Eventually, these characters end up in Oklahoma. I didn’t think there would be nearly as much for Lubezski to revel in. But there are wheat fields, and creeks; also, less flattering geographical spots such as parking structures and supermarkets. Marina dances through these golden fields in the sunlight and through supermarket aisles. She does a lot of twirling; she is a carefree spirit and she can’t contain herself – of course, a guy like Mr.Affleck could have this effect on a woman. These blissful moments eventually expire and soon enough, there are feelings of resentment and hostility between these two. This causes Marina and her daughter to return to France. Neil then reconnects with a rancher he knew in childhood, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina also begins a bond with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who is struggling with his faith.
We seem to be tapping into Malick’s memories and I’m convinced most of what appears on-screen is autobiographical. I found a lot of the dialogue inaudible – much of it seemed to be quiet whispers; at times, I felt like I was being brought into a conversation between two people mid-way, and was lost at sea. That is the point, I suppose – not to listen, but to feel. The dialogue that was audible was nearly indecipherable with pseudo-poetic ideas about love – “Emotions, they come and go like clouds.” “You fear your love has died, it is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher.”
These abstract qualities, however, made it very difficult for me to connect with the film. I admired much of what I saw, but I felt like I was being put through an academic exercise. As an example, I can’t even begin to explain the disintegration of the relationship between Neil and Marina – other than in terms of the metaphorical imagery which is often presented with muted colors. As mentioned before, Malick often poses an eternal question – “What does it all mean?” He may not have had a driving narrative in his previous work; what he did have were images which implanted provocative questions into the minds of its viewers. Never will I forget the composts and birth of the universe sequence in ‘The Tree of Life’ and wonder how this connected to a coming-of-age story (or a family in Waco, Texas). Or the first shot of ‘The Thin Red Line’ which shows a crocodile submerged in the jungle river – is nature at war with itself? Some have considered his work self-indulgent; I’ve always found it awe-inspiring. Which is exactly where my trouble with ‘To The Wonder’ lies – where is the sense of awe and wonderment? The images in this picture didn’t speak to me; Mr.Malick has made his point inaccessible and has forced me to endure this experience.
What exactly does the landscape represent? The emotions felt by its central characters? The emotions not felt by them? More importantly, how do we care about characters that appear to be theoretical constructs? I reiterate the fact that I probably wasn’t supposed to care; that I was supposed to delve into Malick’s philosophical world and derive a formula for “Higher Meaning”. But, the drama at the core of the film should support Malick’s philosophical leafage. I couldn’t make the connection. Same goes for Javier Bardem’s character – his story seems to be from another movie altogether.
Malick’s intentions are admirable, and if anything, ‘To The Wonder’ is ambitious to a fault. I don’t want to ask for a more conventional piece, but I think a little less wonder, and a little more story would have gone a long way. Marina’s daughter, Tatiana, has one of the film’s few audible lines of dialogue. This was the only universal truth I was able to leave with – “There’s something missing.” Yes, there is. QED.