Grasping for Meaning, Love
There’s a shot in the middle of Terence Malick’s new film “To The Wonder” that lingers for a moment -like many of its images- that partially captures the ever-reaching essence of a Malick film. To the right of the screen, a backyard with fertilized lush green grass, children skipping and swinging from a play structure, contained by a large wooden fence. To the left, a barren wasteland of dead, faded weeds that stretch for miles into the dusty, flat infinite. The camera sits in the middle, its liminal placement a recurring theme for a story based on both its lasting, transient imagery and characters constantly on the verge, hesitant, and primarily silent, whose looks are filled with feeling.
Far be it from Malick to guide you into a coherent narrative that explains its themes through comprehensible dialogue. His transcendent, spiritual Tree of Life almost two years ago offered little in terms of linearity, spanning over four billion years, including a brief dinosaur age, while mostly settling into 1950s Texas full of crew cuts, dresses, and dry, sun-drenched earth. Malick continues his journey into the sensory pleasures in To The Wonder but creates a less grandiose vision of existential questioning, voice-overs, and God-seeking. This film is much simpler in its narrative, but just as emotionally complex and fulfilling.
It begins and also ends in an environment similar to the Tree of Life’s conclusion, a muddy shore where intermittent waves skim the surface in varying degrees, erasing footprints in the ambiguous meeting point of earth and sea. Instead of an intentional metaphorical place of heaven, Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko wade in the squishy waters beneath Mont St. Michel, the island abbey off the coast of Normandy. They play Neil and Marina who are shown to be deeply in love in a cloudy Parisian backdrop. She has a daughter Tatiana from another man, and Neil constantly aims to earn both of their French affections. But this is not his home, and so, accepting his request, they leave Paris for Neil’s Oklahoma housing development, an area vast with big blue sky and golden dry grass, its telephone poles stand-ins for skyscrapers.
Neil is an environmental inspector, and migrates to different homes, testing water and soil while being confronted by angry townspeople about their living conditions. Details are kept at a minimum. Affleck never looks fully content and sputters but several lines the entire film, most coming through breathy voice-over narration pursuing love’s meaning, asking questions of “why?” That is how we hear Marina’s thoughts as she at once finds herself reclusive and mesmerized by her new world. Love has brought her to a land “so honest and rich,” but her life in Main Street Middle America feels empty and stifling, especially for her daughter, ostracized by a language and emotional barrier. In one scene she stands on a football field sideline frozenly observing a high school marching band rehearse, springing instantly to Neil’s car as he pulls in to pick her up.
He sends them back to Paris, in part for Tatiana’s well being and because Marina’s visa is expiring. Neil almost instantly rekindles an old relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), presumably a former girlfriend. Their attraction grows and Neil regains some joy again, unburdened by continental divide, now infatuated with a blonde country girl. There is a way Malick, who reteams with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzecki, captures a raw beauty in McAdams with an Andrew Wyeth “Christina’s World” sensibility that follows the two through the chest high wheat fields with his stylized intimacy. She is authentically American, but a perceived spiritual connection turns into an exercise of lust and pleasure, which none are ready to accept.
The weaving, creeping, and revolving camera does more than just follow the two couples; it interacts with them. It is Malick’s signature, transforming static relational energy with movement, a way of bridging his nearly silent, orchestral film with emotional glue. It’s only in the cracks that we find real dialogue, or even snippets of passing conversation. They predominantly come from the local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a man Marina grows closer to as he drifts farther from his own Catholic faith. “Jesus says you must choose,” he preaches to a handful of parishioners. “The man who hesitates is nothing.” His sermons feel intended for Neil, but they are also personal reminders, caught in the in-between, hanging on to a God, a love that has no evidence of its past presence. His black collar is the lone hope for so many of the town’s forgotten, physically and mentally damaged poor and jailed, living under tin roofs and regret, clinging to repentance. Quintana must give but he struggles to find his own fulfillment.
Malick is not a director who lends himself to escapist filmgoers. He requires attention and thought but never a direct response, except maybe to watch with an innocence and sense of awe. You can approach this film with the mentality of “getting” it, but that might be the wrong course for a healthy viewing experience. That isn’t to say that Malick doesn’t tempt us with images to search deeper, but they in certain ways exist like Marina’s childlike spirit, ephemerally charged and fleetingly passionate, like incongruous spurts adding levity to the deeply melancholic existential journeys the film’s characters take.
The disconnect that gradually forms between Neil and Marina is a slow and arduous ordeal that can seem both frustrating and authentic. The refined beauty Malick captured in Jessica Chastain in Tree Of Life is again posited on Olga Kurylenko, a woman who indeed embodies Marina’s conflicting sentiment that there are “two women inside of me.” Her pliable spirit is in constant search of a higher power with no answers.
Underneath the Oklahoma white noise of summertime crickets and locusts is a silent town. Backyards are kept green by constant nurturing, but when untended devolve into the barren wasteland held permanent beyond property lines, leaving no trace of its previous fertile state. There’s a reason Neil and Marina have so much fun together wading in the muddy tide pools of Normandy and why Malick keeps coming back to that environment. For a moment they live in an ambiguity, a love without delineations. To The Wonder, for its sometimes artsy esotericism, shines, or more appropriately sinks in, during these moments, happy to bask in Mother Nature’s own momentary, beautiful hesitation before its tides make their decision.