To the Wonder

Malick goes all in

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Some audiences have trouble with experimental films. I have trouble with experimental films that aren’t experimental enough.

Truthfully, I prefer straight-up, linear narratives. Character, conflict, catharsis—you know, all those things Aristotle used to yammer on about. Those still work for me, time after time. But if you’re going to gamble, go big. And Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder is a true, all-in bet.

The poetry of movies—visuals, sounds, movements and how they can be joined or juxtaposed—is maximized. The hard prose of cinema—dialogue, plot, climax—is minimized.

It’s a high-stakes game Malick is playing here—just how much can you pare away from a story and still have a story?—and it’s had some audiences shaking their heads. And, true, it doesn’t always pay off. But it’s still a fascinating piece of art and—for an ever-evolving artist—a personal breakthrough.

Malick’s story is simple. An American meets and falls in love with a single mother in Paris. He brings her back home, to Oklahoma. She’s lonely, amidst the alien corn. Visa troubles arise; temptations, too. Slowly, they drift apart.

It could have been a silent film, once. In some ways, it almost is, now. That’s because, while there’s talking in the movie, there’s hardly any dialogue—if, by dialogue, you mean a scene in which two people exchange lines. Instead, someone speaks in voiceover, or another person says a few words.

No one really listens. No one really responds.

Partnering this story on a troubled romance is one about a shaken faith, as we see a Catholic priest in this small town trying to reconnect with his belief. Can he see Christ in the faces of the sick and broken people he ministers to? Can he find God’s love in such ugliness?

And although no two characters in the movie really engage each other in conversation, this is the film’s true dialogue, as the pair of stories comment on each other.

True, there’s more music, even dance here, than dramatic performance. Malick is not an actor’s director. Several stars who shot footage for this film—from Rachel Weisz to Jessica Chastain—had their roles recast or their parts cut. Others, like Ben Affleck—who plays the Oklahoman—seem lost onscreen.

Yet Olga Kurylenko, who plays the woman he brings back to America, is charismatic (albeit in an occasionally confusing part). Rachel McAdams, as Affleck’s hometown love, is simply incandescent.

And Javier Bardem is a surprising, morose presence as the questioning priest, wandering through the dirty mazelike streets of his parish, his huge melancholy minotaur’s head bowed as he tries desperately to find something he cannot see.

Of course, because this is a Malick film, it’s about more than just people. It’s about their relationship to nature. And so there are myriad shots of water, rushing past like life itself only to suddenly eddy and swirl. There are seas of grass, rustling in the wind. (There are, thankfully, no dinosaurs, as there were in Malick’s last, even more perplexing Tree of Life—although a giant tortoise does make an appearance.)

So yes, sometimes the film does seem unnecessarily confusing. Flashbacks suddenly appear, some events are unexplained and a few characters act uncharacteristically. Yet, for all its quirks, Malick’s most daring movie is in some ways his most accessible.

It serves up real emotion, and striking grace. It has moments of simple beauty, and thorny questions. And it shows what real, risk-it-all experimentation—and true artistic success—is all about.

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