To the Wonder
(MILD SPOILERS) Terrence Malick’s latest rumination falls considerably short of post-career comeback triumphs The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Accordingly, it has more in common with his 2005 Pocahontas tale The New World; a visually resplendent piece of work (as are all his films) but one that fails to resonate.
Maybe it’s all in the casting, despite the evidence that his actors are somewhat superfluous to his goals. The number that have ended up on his cutting room floor is legendary, although it says as much about their unabated desire to work with a legend as his capacity for pruning and reshaping his projects in the edit (with scant regards for his thespians). The Thin Red Line bears the evidence of this most heavily (star turns from the likes of Travolta and Clooney stick out like a sore thumb as they only appear for a scene or two), and more recently Sean Penn passed comment about how little of his performance remained in The Tree of Life. This time numerous actors (and therefore subplots) vanished from the finished article; there was no Rachel Weisz, or Amanda Peet, or Barry Pepper, or Jessica Chastain, or Michael Sheen. And those we are left with are unable to sufficiently define their characters. With a Ben Affleck, I doubt that all the time in the world would have made his role seem more rounded. But it’s difficult to argue that Javier Bardem has a less than irrepressible screen presence. And yet, he fails to make much impact. So maybe it’s not just about the casting.
What survives the mass slaughter of Malick’s editing process is almost wilfully oblique; it’s clear that the director has intentionally repositioned Affleck’s Neil at arm’s length, such that he is witnessed through the eyes of those with whom he has relationships (mainly Olga Kurylenko’s Marina). But the actor’s a bit of a blank at the best of times (either stoical or wooden, depending on the role). Neil is granted very little dialogue, either voiceover or spoken, and one assumes that he is impenetrable because that’s how Marina sees him. The problem is, the picture as a whole is content to occupy this space, out of reach and inert. It’s as if Malick wishes to tread as closely to a non-narrative form as possible. He hangs the loosest of threads together, daring the imponderables to stick.
Neil is ostensibly the hub of the film, as it is around him that the relationships with Marina and Jane (Rachel McAdams) revolve. In Paris, Neil begins a relationship with the Ukranian Marina. She and her daughter move to Oklahoma with him. When their relationship begins to fall apart, Neil takes up with old friend Jane. The other significant character is Father Quintera (Bardem), a Catholic priest with great doubts over his faith; the paths of Neil and Marina cross his periodically.
I did wonder if Wonder’s tonal variation to The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life might be the key to its failure to connect. Where those films resonated through their characters’ hopes and spiritual awareness, here the director abides with those who are lost or struggling. He leaves it doubtful as to whether any relief is possible (the harsh realities of ephemeral or unrequited love, be it toward another or God). But I don’t think that’s all it is. Unwilling to engage wholly with the relationships between his characters, Malick has nothing solid to fall back on. The Thin Red Line contrasted the starkness of war with the longings of its embattled soldiers. The horror of conflict was juxtaposed with the beauty of the natural world. The Tree of Life set the birth of the universe against the microcosm of a Texan family upbringing. Here, the relationships are murky (Marina appears to be bipolar; we see her veer from prancing and dancing – to be fair she is a ballerina – to abject despair) or underdeveloped (Jane barely features, which would be fine if she was intended to contrast with a fully realised Marina, but the latter remains at a distance).
It’s possible that the “solidity” in this regard was intended for Quintera; it is his questioning relationship with God that has the clearest “structure” (we see his ministrations, but also his fear when one of his flock perceives his lack of belief). But like Jane, Quintera never registers more than tangentially. All of this might have still found form had Malick not semi-dispensed with meaningful voiceovers. In To the Wonder they have become mere fragments, the imploring searching discourses of Thin Red Line long since abandoned. What remains with Quintera is a dried up husk of hope; all he can do is persevere.
Characters’ meditations, now half-whispered commentaries, are borne mainly from confusion and lack of insight (in Marina’s case); they are as enigmatic and elliptical as the characters. When combined with the absence of dramatic incident the result is a very pretty, rather bloated experimental movie; close to an extended montage sequence than a coherent narrative. This may be the intent; as Marina’s friend Anna (Romina Mondello) says “Life’s a dream. In a dream you can make mistakes”. Characters perceptions and experiences form a diffuse mist. Factors that once suggested connection and affirmative forces now signify distance (the aforementioned voiceover, but also the ever-present natural world). Nature is less a comfort (although as beautifully shot as ever) and more a representation of characters’ isolation amidst its canopy.
There is a cumulative point too where the picture ever so slightly begins to feel like a parody of Malick movies. You can feel the director straining for meaning and import to the brink of unintentional comedy. I’m reminded of After the Fox where Peter Sellers’ (fake) film director improvises a scene with Victor Mature and Britt Ekland. In a send-up of neo-realism he instructs them to run and run, as symbolically “No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourselves!” “Ahhh! Beautiful!” replies Mature’s ham actor. In To the Wonder, Neil and Marina visit a kitchen supply store and stand amid the washing machines while she plays with a connecting hose. Neil runs from a chicken Marina is clutching (at least To the Wonder can boast the sight of Ben Affleck fleeing a fowl). Neil and Jane stand in fields of long grass. Neil, environmental inspector by day, tramps through a mire of mud at a snowy site (still looking beautiful, but in a slightly dirty way); doubtless this symbolises the state of his life, but why we are shown it Malick only knows (he won’t allow us into Neil’s head). Sunlight is constantly caught through the leaves of trees; it’s a like comedian who keeps telling the same tired joke because an audience laughed at it once.
There has been discussion of the precise fates of Neil and Marina (together or apart, in positive or negative states), but in honesty the conversation has failed to grab me. Simply because Malick’s film hasn’t moved me; I don't really care about his characters, because he hasn't given me enough to do so. The director is adept at visual poetry as ever he was, but this time he has pared away his other most fascinating quality as a filmmaker; his existential contemplations. Maybe he feels he has gone as far as he can in one direction (Malick, an Episcopalian and one-time philosophy lecturer, is inescapably stirred by spiritual deliberations); it will be interesting to see if Knight of Cups and its companion project find the director tackling his pet themes from a different storytelling position. I hope so, as I’m not sure how much time I have for further forays along this path; an approach that was once liberating has become a formal cul-de-sac.