2013, Terrence Malick
You’ve just created a film, widely considered to be your magnum opus, encompassing a scope as epic as depicting the literal creation of the universe and the afterlife. So, what do you do next? If you’re Terrence Malick, you take things in a more intimate direction with a domestic psychodrama detailing the coming together and falling apart of an American man and French woman. Played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, with support from Rachel McAdams as a former flame and Javier Bardem as a troubled priest, the drama at the core of To the Wonder is semi-autobiographical for the filmmaker and yet it’s ultimately just a metaphor for his more universal themes of faith and love. Played without a traditional narrative structure and mostly told in whispered voiceover inserted atop handheld footage of the lovers in the throes of emotion, To the Wonder could easily be the director’s most polarizing work to date, but for this viewer it worked like a charm.
Marking only the sixth feature in his 40-year career, Malick’s infamous habit of taking many years to produce his films has taken a sharp turn, as To the Wonder's release comes only two years after his previous effort, The Tree of Life. One couldn’t be blamed for having worry that his quick turnaround would result in something less inspired or comprehensive, but to my surprise I found To the Wonder to be his most emotionally potent work to date. Watching it, you get the feeling that this is a cinematic journey Malick had been sitting on for a long time and after he got the epic saga of The Tree of Life out of his system he was finally able to tell it. Of course, this being Malick, things were never going to be told by way of conventional narrative and at this point in his career the plots of his films have become practically inconsequential, serving as only the most basic of platforms for the cinematic poetry that he lays out on top of it all.
Frankly speaking, this either works for you or it doesn’t and at this point in the director’s career, you know what you’re getting when going into a Malick film. With the minimal dialogue, frequent use of voiceover, breathtaking cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who worked with the director on Tree of Life) and swelling classical score, To the Wonder doesn’t mark anything new for the director and there’s nothing unexpected here but this is where his reclusive nature becomes a benefit to his canon. In recent years he has become much more prolific and right now he has at least two more films that we are apparently going to be seeing within the next few years, and I do worry that soon his incredibly unique way of filmmaking will start to feel tired and repetitive but for now each of his films remain a breath of fresh air. To the Wonder doesn’t see him go in any new direction, but rather continues him on the path that he has always been on, as with each film he becomes less concerned with traditional filmmaking and much more focused on eliciting emotional response and conveying thematic depth through a sensory approach.
I’m sure one can interpret To the Wonder in many different ways and some viewers have left perplexed as to what it all means, but for me it was rather straightforward. As he did with The Tree of Life, Malick uses a domestic drama as a metaphor to enhance a throughline of universal themes. Those themes are delivered primarily through Bardem’s priest character, who spends his time wandering directionless and ruminating on whether god has left us or if he’s waiting to be found. Presenting that question on the absence of god unfolds a greater depth to the dismantling of the relationship between Affleck and Kurylenko’s characters, perhaps positing that with his absence also comes the absence of love. To the Wonder marks Malick’s first film to take place entirely in the modern day, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that it’s this modern setting that provides the environment for their romantic unraveling.
As the film begins, the two lovebirds are as free as can be, frolicking as pure and innocent as children through wide open nature. They play in the sand and waves on the beach (not coincidentally the setting for Malick’s afterlife in his previous effort, perhaps foreshadowing the eventual outcome of their romance) and it’s when they return to the modern suburbia that things start to come apart. Malick has always been an artist who has clashed with the modern nature of man, and To the Wonder is another representation of that, as one could leave with the feeling that he thinks there is no more room for that kind of pure love and freedom in this modern world. It’s a rather harsh perspective, but Malick depicts it in a way that still manages to capture and illuminate the beauty that is out there within our grasp if we can only take the time to embrace it. It’s free in the open air, ready for us all, if only we can break from the cages that our modern world has locked us in.
Along with his years in the editing room putting together his films, another aspect of Malick’s filmmaking that has become infamous is his refusal to allow the status of his stars to get in the way of his storytelling. Malick won’t ever let his actors take precedence over his thematic journey, and as a result many of the biggest names in the industry have found themselves working on his films only to see their parts end up on the cutting room floor. To the Wonder is no different, as notable actors Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Jessica Chastain all shot footage that is nowhere to be seen in the finished product. However, this is ultimately a blessing, as Wonder is such an intimate tale that is focused on a quartet of figures played out very well by his talented cast. Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem all turn in solid performances, but it’s Olga Kurylenko who really stands out here as one of the strongest performances to emerge from the director’s work to date.
Through Affleck’s commanding physical presence, Malick keeps the film grounded to the earth but it’s with Kurylenko that he takes it to a more effervescent place and she really soars with his guidance. An actress who has mostly spent her career so far going the traditional post-model route of starring as eye candy in action films, Kurylenko gives a performance here that shows she has so much more to offer the world than what she’s been allowed to give. A stunning collaboration of artist and muse, there is a purity to Kurylenko’s portrayal that is frankly undefinable but captures an utterly enchanting beauty that brings the audience with her on a wide emotional spectrum. When she’s free as a bird, enraptured in the the throes of love and the wonder of life, your heart soars along with her and I found myself stuck with a wide smile on my face. Yet when the romance turns and she’s locked inside her domestic cage, broken and stripped of that love, your heart breaks along with hers and there’s a brutal tragedy that overwhelms the emotional palette. It’s an absolutely stunning performance that magnificently captures and compliments the poetic, ethereal quality of Malick’s filmmaking approach.