By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
TIFF12 Review: To the Wonder
Terrence Malick’s style of visual poetry, particularly as expressed in last year’s Tree of Life and now in the equally enigmatic and abstract To the Wonder, isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine. Part of the beauty of film is that not everything has to work for every person, and this is in part because what we get out of a film is refracted to a large degree by what we’re bringing into it. In that sense, there’s not really any such thing as objectivity when it comes to cinema, not even the objectivity of the movie a filmmaker thinks he made; until that end result is viewed by an audience, what a film “is” exists only within the context of the filmmaker’s intent, and what it becomes to each person watching it as individual as the pattern of a fingerprint or snowflake. For me, at least, To the Wonder was lovely and challenging, difficult and beautiful in the same way that life itself is difficult and beautiful.
Malick seems to be at a deeply introspective stage of his career where he’s focused on making these broadly sweeping thematic films that seek to answer – or at least to ponder — heady questions about life and love, about spirituality and God and nature and what all that means, and here, with To the Wonder, about the strange interconnectedness created by the love two people share. When I was younger, I don’t know that I would have had the patience and life experience to appreciate such a film, but in my mid-40s, having loved and lost, hurt others and been hurt in return, and, I hope, been shaped into something better through the process of learning some things about what the nature of love means to me, I found the ideas Malick expresses in To the Wonder to resonate deeply.
Tree of Life explored what this thing we call “life” means on a broader scale of nature, evolution, and human relationships, and how the roots of all things define and shape how we grow and evolve. Now, with To the Wonder, Malick’s working with the story of one man who seeks answers in his work as an environmental investigator, but seems unable to seek the answers within himself that will allow him to connect deeply with another person. Where other filmmakers might choose to stay on the surface of such a story, exploring it through more conventional storytelling means of plot and clearly defined structure, Malick uses story as a platform from which to boldly, obliquely explore the nature of love, the ways in which we bind to one other, and the ways in which those binds can be severed and reconnected when the burning passion that sparks a relationship devolves into malaise and discontent, rejoins and intertwines, in the complicated dance that ties two hearts.
Ben Affleck plays an unnamed man (Neil according to the credits) who meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Europe and falls in love with her, at least in his own way. They walk together along a peaceful shore, the footprints that mark their presence there gently absorbed by the water-logged sand, footprints and sand and water all merging into something different altogether by the nature of the way each has shaped the other. They climb a peak leading up to the sky, they share moments both silly and silent. Marina’s a marvelous free spirit, dancing and laughing her way through life with exuberance and passion; in stark contrast Neil is all quiet seriousness, which barely amps up above the hint of a smile, even in those moments when he seems happiest. Neil falls in love also with Marina’s precocious and equally charming 10-year-old daughter Tatiana, and asks the pair to join him in the States, in his hometown of Bartlesville. And so they go, and they’re both excited at first to be in the States and eager to explore all the newness – the hugeness and cleanliness of the supermarkets, the beauty of golden fields, the wideness of clear blue skies.
But Marina and Tatiana find it hard to connect with all this foreign strangeness and to make friends in Bartlesville, and the production design reflects both Marina’s loneliness and sense of isolation and Neil’s inability to settle down; here is the big wide sky and the gold of sunset, so different from the landscape that defines “home” for Marina and Tatiana. Here is Neil’s house, a study in the impermanence of a man unable to commit to anything. The pieces of his life, like his soul, are packed away in moving boxes; the walls unadorned of any personal mark; the furniture minimal and functional. This, says the house, is the place of a man with no attachments.
The nail in the coffin is Neil’s reluctance to commit to more in the relationship when Marina’s visa expires. And so the tie severs, at least for a time, and he reconnects with an old love, Jane (Rachel McAdams), who also wants to love him (why do we love those who cannot love us in return?) but that sense of restlessness and discontent pervades Neil’s very being. Marina eventually comes back, this time without Tatiana, who’s now living happily with her dad, and they marry, but still there is a chasm between them, in spite of Marina’s efforts to understand what Neil wants and needs to be happy.
The other lost soul at the heart of the story is the town’s Catholic priest (Javier Bardem), who speaks of faith to his congregation while struggling to find his own, wandering through the disparate and despairing lives of his parishioners as though by taking on enough of their own soul burdens, he might alleviate his own. Affleck and Bardem in particular turn in exceptional performances, not to be underrated by the fact that most of the acting must be conveyed without words. Like Tree of Life, this film is a master class on how to tell a story visually without relying on dialog and exposition to do the heavy lifting for you.
Almost completely with images, Malick weaves together the tales of these people: The man who cannot open his heart to love, and the women who pay the price for loving him; the priest who nurtures the faith of his flock, while being unable to nurture his own faith and heal whatever deeply soul-rooted pain drives his suffering. The priest is searching, searching for his God, but cannot see that God surrounds him, in every person with whom he interacts, the beautiful and the scarred and beaten; in every pattern made by branches of tree against clear blue sky; in sunlight back-lighting the stained glass windows of the church and setting fields of grain aglow with golden light. Christ on my left, he whispers. Christ on my right. Christ in my heart. There is dirt and poverty and blight and ugliness, but beneath those surface things, Malick reveals the beauty and deeper meaning that lies within, if only we can see it.
Visually, To the Wonder is simply stunningly beautiful to look at, particularly when Malick moves outdoors. It’s like being immersed in painting after painting created with the most meticulous and thoughtful attention to every detail, with colors popping out like a pre-Raphaelite canvas. He seeks out and finds the beauty in all things, from the glorious majesty of a clear, wide Oklahoma sky, to the rich golds of a field of tall grass in sunlight, to water moving and shaping the sand at low tide. Is there another filmmaker working today who can even come close to expressing story, meaning, spirit and life through images the way Malick does? Like Tree of Life, this is the work of an artist challenging himself to work at his highest level, and it’s just stunningly lovely.
Malick isn’t handing out meaning and intent on a silver platter here, nor does he seem overly concerned with accessibility; the structure of To the Wonder is unconventional, to say the least. He’s reaching deep inside himself and pulling out pieces of his soul here, his own philosophical understanding of life and love and what it all means, and it’s a privilege to watch it and take it all in. To the Wonder is like cinematic church, like receiving the communion wafer Bardem’s priest delivers to his faithful parishioners and to the tongues of men trapped in the steel cages of prison. We are the ones encased in the prisons of our own expectations and understanding of what cinema as a medium can be, and Malick is pushing and challenging those expectations, offering up through his films a different way to see and think about the life and beauty that surrounds us.
If you’re going to walk into To the Wonder, Malick clearly expects you to do so with an open mind and open heart, to just sit back and let go of your conventional expectations of what a film is supposed to be, and allow the visual sumptuousness of all of it all to wash over you and through you, to allow the story to flow into your own soul, where if you sit quietly enough and open yourself to it, you find it seeping into the cracks, settling into the places where the universal aspects of life and love he examines in the films can find their places to resonate within you. Cinematically, To the Wonder is a visual tone poem, not straightforward prose, and that style of storytelling can be challenging to connect with. But Malick doesn’t seem to want to bring what he’s doing down to a more accessible level; rather, he expects you to rise to the challenge he offers and discover for yourself the secrets that lie within its abstractions and visual puzzles.
For me this film was a rapturous experience, allowing it all to just to flow over me as the pieces of the story wove together. Walking out of the theater, I felt as though I’d just been to church, and in a way I suppose I had: the church of life, as envisioned by Malick. And as poetry, as philosophical musing, as expression of life in all its forms of beauty, To the Wonder is, quite simply, wondrous.