'To the Wonder': Malick's remarkable work of art
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
At first glance, it seems that director (and writer, although as his filmography builds that function seems entirely subordinate to the aforementioned one) Terrence Malick is in an enviable position among American filmmakers. Since returning to active filmmaking after a two-decade break -- his beautiful and arguably seminal '70s pictures "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" were followed by "The Thin Red Line" in 1998 -- he's been making films that increasingly extend outside the conventionally accepted realms of cinematic storytelling. "The Thin Red Line," "The New World," "The Tree of Life" and, now, "To the Wonder" are poetic visions that put visual ravishment and enlightenment, and spiritual and cosmic contemplation, way ahead of such standard major motion pictures qualities as plot, character development and action. They're not for everyone, and in fact they're pretty controversial even among the most high-toned cinephiles. But if you go into one with an open mind and can tune into its wavelength, it can take you places that ordinary movies don't even dream of. ("Thank God for their not dreaming of such places," the cynic in the back row of my mind just jeered. Ignore that guy.)
Here's the thing: The high artistry of Malick's work, and the film-historical legend he represents, means that big movie stars want to collaborate with him. This, in turn, means that Malick can get his highly idiosyncratic films financed. Sounds like a win-win. But sometimes the presence of said movie stars can trip a viewer up. For me, "To the Wonder" is a case in point, at least as far as the first viewing is concerned (I'm sufficiently taken with the movie that, yes, I'd like to see it again). Unlike "The Tree of Life," which ventured toward infinity and maybe beyond, and extended its timeline back to prehistoric days, "To the Wonder" stays earthbound, although its most profound concern is with the spiritual lives of its people. And it takes place within something like a normal stretch of time.
It begins simply: A man (Ben Affleck) and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) are in love. She speaks of her feelings, largely in French; they visit Mont San Michel in France, almost sinking in the wet ground as the tide comes in to turn the ground on which the castle is built into an island. The man, Neil, asks the woman to come live with him in America. So off they go, to Oklahoma, where Neil lives and works as an ecological investigator, with the woman's daughter from a previous relationship in tow. The woman, Marina, seems like someone who wants to dance through life (she's leaping and twirling a lot in many scenes), while Neil is more emotionally buttoned up. The movie doesn't show events in these characters' lives as such: When unhappiness comes in, we don't see it conveyed via an argument that turns the relationship sour. Rather, we see the characters, as is customary in Malick's films, in a particular emotional condition relative to their environment. The portrayal may strike some as slack at first, but as someone moved by the film, the term I prefer is "elemental": The particularities of the person in the frame are not as important as the mere fact of the person in the frame. Other people coming into view include a priest (Javier Bardem) who struggles with faith as he counsels Marina on one hand and works with destitute denizens of disintegrating communities on the other, and a hometown old flame (Rachel McAdams) with whom Neil revives a love affair after things with Marina go sour.
The grays and blues of Mont Saint-Michel, the pinks and golds of the open fields of sun-drenched Oklahoma -- these and other elements of Malick's palette convey a world both blessed and fallen. For all the seeming meandering of "To the Wonder," the movie finally, and with a suddenly remarkable sense of purpose, delivers the viewer to an intimation of grace that's as powerful a thing as art has to offer, in the visual and aural form of a Christian prayer. Not that Malick's aesthetic corresponds in any way to Joel Osteen's. But this is an issue for another consideration of the picture. To get back to the movie star topic: I found that having Ben Affleck in the first male lead was a real distraction. Not that he's bad; his performance is absolutely what it needs to be. But his symbolic weight put me in the position of thinking he was the lead character, and as it turns out, he really is not. The movie in a large sense belongs to the beautiful Kurylenko. But even having come to that, I was still frustrated. There was something about the movie's approach to Affleck's character that did not quite split the difference between enigmatic and evasive. Malick's method, it seems, is to shoot a lot of footage with his actors and shape it all in the editing room (Affleck was reportedly himself surprised by what the movie turned out to be), and there seem to be places that Neil is going that the film doesn't want to follow. I don't know if I would be thinking this way if a familiar presence hadn't been enacting the role. And given that Malick's next film features Christian Bale, Antonio Banderas, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, I doubt my question will be answered anytime soon.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.