Terrence Malick’s style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s interesting to see the way in which the director has evolved over the course of his artistic career, with echoes from early work still reverberating through the films he makes today. While romantic drama To The Wonder most closely resembles Malick’s recent, divisive The Tree Of Life – partly through its look and the way it is edited, partly through the way it highlights life’s smaller connected moments, partly through other broad thematic similarities and partly through the level of disregard for formal narrative structure or typical sound design – all of these stylistic choices and ideas have their roots in his sporadic efforts from previous decades. The editing here is looser than ever (or at least perfectly honed to create the illusion of looseness), the camera’s movements freer, but witness the way Malick tracks Sissy Spacek’s Kit as she twirls through the opening scenes of 1973’s Badlands and compare it to the way the camera moves alongside lead character Marina (Olga Kurylenko) here, for example, or consider the breathy, half-heard dialogue in To The Wonder with that of 1978’s masterful Days Of Heaven.
Criticism of To The Wonder has primarily highlighted the plot’s slightness, and certainly on the face of it not a great deal happens, but Malick’s obvious focus now is on those moments in-between that other directors and storytellers overlook. In summary Neil (Ben Affleck), an American travelling in Paris, meets and falls in love with Ukrainian ingénue Marina, who has a daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from an earlier marriage. Marina and Tatiana move to Neil’s home in Oklahoma, where he works as an environmental inspector, but when their visas expire and they travel back to Europe to renew them Neil has an affair with childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina returns to Oklahoma without her daughter and marries Neil, but following the proverbial honeymoon period their relationship gradually deteriorates further, and she also has an affair. The disintegration of their marriage plays out in tandem with the struggles of local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is going through his own crisis of faith, another example of Malick’s unfashionable examination of Christianity.
In tracing the course of Neil and Marina’s relationship Malick seeks, and often finds, the beauty and profundity that exists in the everyday. Though we witness some important events – their wedding day, their affairs, the arguments they have in their car and at home – the director seems just as interested in the couple’s walks through fields or their trips to the supermarket, and such scenes are filled with an infectious frivolity. Mainly the camera stays waist high just behind Marina (and Jane during her brief fling), with the movements suggesting that, initially at least, the director wants us to join him in celebrating the love enjoyed by his characters. The start of Neil and Marina’s relationship in Paris is portrayed as idyllic and she spins through the streets while he trails in her wake: it’s shot like an arthouse commercial for the city, all smouldering glances and love locks secured above the Seine, before they move on to Mont St. Michel (the ‘wonder’ of the title).
Much of To The Wonder will feel familiar to Malick fans. For starters there’s the predilection for shooting during the golden hour and in the wide-open spaces of the American heartland (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s excellent work recalls that of Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler on Days Of Heaven). Scenes begin and end mid-sentence, some words and phrases are inaudible, and for a two-hour movie the characters barely speak at all (Affleck probably learned his lines in ten minutes, and much of the film is in French, perhaps in order to highlight the director’s affinity with that country’s 20th Century cinematic output). Thematically, Malick is again interested in the relationship between humans and the natural world, and there are countless shots of swaying grasslands, crops and trees, while Neil’s job requires him to investigate the effects of pollution on local residents. The story focuses on a small number of characters and yet again there’s a suggestion that Malick ‘found’ the film he was trying to make during the editing process; Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen had parts and every single one of them ended up on the cutting room floor.
There is a structure in place here, but it’s considerably less clear than in those two films from the 1970s mentioned above, and we are given an impression of various moments lived (as opposed to a linear and clear step-by-step account of Marina’s time in the US). The director’s approach is to suggest that a feeling from a fingertip as it trails along a surface is as important in creating the big picture as any conversation taking place between characters; the rationale is that a relationship isn’t defined simply by its arguments, or by a parting of the ways, or an initial meeting, but all of those things plus the time you flashed your chest in a supermarket or the time you eyed your loved one suspiciously while moving your hand through the water of a swimming pool. I can see why this mélange turns a lot of people off, and I can understand why accusations of pretentiousness appear after Malick’s name as often as the word ‘recluse’, but I suspect that many of these attacks occur because his films are different, and offer an alternative to the accepted norm. Maybe there’s a degree of confusion that’s driven by his repeat casting of famous stars: some people have certain expectations when they see names like George Clooney, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck at the top of a poster (all have Batman and Malick in common, for example), and Malick’s films will never satisfy those expectations. But for me his serene, carefully-crafted films are beautiful to watch, and the recent accentuation of style feels fresh and original, despite the longevity of his career and the similarities with those earlier films. I also think there is enough substance in his work to back up the style.
Incredibly Malick, now in his early 70s, has turned into a prolific director: he has two films coming out this year, both starring Christian Bale, and, if all goes to plan, by the end of 2016 he will have directed five in as many years. While this isn’t anything new – Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood are of comparable age and both have a similar work ethic – it must be remembered that To The Wonder is only Malick’s sixth film in close to 40 years, and famously there was a gap of 20 between the second and third features. (Though it’s not as if he was completely idle: he spent many years writing.)
We can but speculate on the sudden burst in productivity given that interviews with Malick are rare. It could be a result of the onset of age and the sense that the clock is ticking; recent films have certainly felt more personal, at least, and there are clear links here to the director’s life – he met his second wife in Paris in 1980, they married in 1985, lived in Oklahoma and divorced a decade or so later. Then again, perhaps it’s to do with the development of his graceful style, and the fact he has seemingly found a collaborator for life in Lubezki, who has been present since 2005’s The New World (though interestingly Malick’s usual editor, Billy Weber, did not work on this film). Perhaps he’s simply enjoying making films more than he ever did.
Your opinion of To The Wonder will probably depend on whether you’re willing to sit back and go with another two hours of Malick’s luxurious imagery and wispy dialogue or whether you think it amounts to a pile of pretentious twaddle. It’s clear that the director is inviting pastiche with his consistency but I’m firmly in the first camp nonetheless. I do agree that the story and the depiction of these characters is disappointingly slight here but, as with The Tree Of Life, it must be remembered that Malick’s primary concern lies with questioning the ways of nature and man’s relationship with the divine.
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline
Running Time: 112 minutes