April 20, 2013



TO THE WONDER:  Malick Twirls and Twirls and Doesn’t Get Anywhere

Terrence Malick’s last film The Tree of Life was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture; his new TO THE WONDER is receiving only a token theatrical release, with the bulk of its distribution through video-on-demand.  That’s a sign of the times, but it also says something about Malick, whose interest in storytelling and contact with all but the most rarefied audience, always tenuous, is now all but gone.

To the Wonder is like most Malick movies, only more so.  Watching it, you wonder what it must be like to have a conversation with the man.  When he goes to a restaurant, does he look at the menu and order something like a human being, or does he flutter his hands about with seeming randomness while murmuring words like “nourishment” and “void,” assuming the waitress will figure out what he wants?  That’s certainly the way he makes movies.

It’s not that there isn’t a skeletal plot to be discerned in To the Wonder.  Its events, such as they are, are fairly clear.  (So SPOILER ALERT, I guess.)  A man identified in the credits as “Neil” (played by Ben Affleck) meets a single mother named “Marina” (Olga Kurylenko) while in Paris, and he brings the woman and her daughter back with him to Oklahoma, where he has a job that involves the taking of water samples.  By the time her visa has expired, he’s reestablished contact with “Jane” (Rachel McAdams), a woman he knew in his youth who’s now a rancher, and he and Marina break up.  But after she (I think) sends him a letter about her miserable she is, he brings her back, this time without her daughter.  They get married, but fight, and ultimately she cheats on him, and when she confesses he sends her away for good.  Meanwhile, the local priest “Father Quintana” (Javier Bardem) has a crisis of faith.

Those events, though, couldn’t be held at a farther remove from viewers.  I use quotation marks around the names because Malick doesn’t make movies about characters, he makes them about “characters,” reduced literally to figures in his landscapes.  Those landscapes are, without exception, gorgeous, images flooded with sun or warmly enshrouded with clouds, composed exquisitely by Malick with his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot The Tree of Life and The New World) so that even a shabby motel room has an otherworldly glow.  Lubezki’s camera never stops moving, not in a jittery indie-movie way, but with a swooping, gliding, rising, pas de deux dynamic that gives every shot the quality of urgent moments taking place in another dimension.  The soundtrack, too, is majestic, a mix of softly half-whispered narration (usually a fragment of a sentence, a long pause, then another fragment, extending for minutes at a time, and much of it subtitled either in French for Kurylenko or Spanish for Bardem) and classical music, a mix of ersatz by Hanan Townshend (some of his music was also featured in Tree of Life) and the real thing.  Dialogue is sparse and deemphasized:  one of the hallmarks of Malick’s style is to write what appears to be a relatively conventional screenplay, with dramatic sequences and fleshed-out characters, then to remove nearly all of it during editing, pushing the volume down on what moments remain of people speaking to one another.

For decades, there have been people who swoon over all this.  The one thing that’s clear about Malick’s purpose is that he’s imparting spiritual dimension to everyday events–Marina’s yearning for love is equated with Quintana’s yearning for God–and that’s certainly a rare and daring point of view in today’s cinema.  But there’s a difference between exploring spirituality on screen and making movies as though you actually are the Almighty.  Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer, Kieslowski–all of them found the cosmos in specificity, by creating and revealing the souls of characters who move us because they are us.  To the Wonder, on the contrary, makes one think of the scene in The Third Man (written by Graham Greene, another artist known for his spiritual convictions), where Orson Welles’ Harry Lime tries to convince Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins, while looking down from a ferris wheel, that it’s OK to betray and even kill people for one’s own gain.  “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” he says of the people walking beneath them.  Malick takes a much less murderous view of humanity, but we’re still just dots to him. (There’s something revolting about the scenes where Malick follows Bardem’s priest around on visits to what appear to be actual homeless and ill people, and the filmmaker uses them as props.)

One can’t really judge “acting” in a Malick film.  Affleck is theoretically the film’s central figure, but he barely exists in To the Wonder other than as a stolid, and occasionally violent, figure in the frame, a less motivated or interesting version of Brad Pitt’s father in The Tree of Life.  (You can’t help thinking that Affleck signed on for the part as an experiment, to see what it would be like to work for a director with a sensibility at the absolutely opposite extreme from Affleck’s very effectively middle-of-the-road own.)  Malick has Kurylenko do the endless twirling that he demands of his lead actresses, constant movement that is meant to suggest a transcendent connection with a greater power, the life-force itself, but after a while you just hope that the actress was paid by the mile.  McAdams and Bardem are each only in the film for perhaps 20 minutes, and during those times Bardem looks convincingly weary and McAdams does a little twirling of her own, in a more home-spun way.  The only person in the cast who actually makes an impression is Romina Mondello, as a–friend? relative?–of Marina’s, who gets to deliver an entire scene of dialogue warning Marina away from Neil, and comes across as a person with genuine blood in her veins.

It’s always dangerous to pry into a filmmaker’s personal life as a way of looking at their films, but it’s a matter of record that Terrence Malick was married to a French woman for 13 years, and then he married a woman from his hometown whom he’d known as a young man.  So it’s not unreasonable to think that the subject matter of To the Wonder has some personal relevance for him, more directly than something like The New World or The Thin Red Line.  His decision to view its events from a strictly cosmic point of view, unwilling to engage with any but its most abstract emotions, doesn’t seem so much spiritually cleansed as profoundly blocked.  Malick is a truly unique, remarkably gifted film artist.  He’s not a deity, though, and only members of his cult are likely to care about his films as long as they’re merely about dots.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."