There are reasons not to perform well at your work. If you give a fine sermon that alters the thinking of your parishioner, your parishioner will have that sermon in mind when he listens to your next one. If you complete your projects at work and impress your superiors, you will be given more work. Or, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, if you host an award show and bring the house down, your only reward is the opportunities to host more award shows.
The quandary faces Terence Malick in the crafting of his new film, To the Wonder. Coming only two short years after The Tree of Life—a veritable flash of lightning within the spectrum of possible lapses between Malick films—Malick’s new effort opens in the latter’s shadow. To the Wonder treads on the same stylistic ground as did The Tree of Life—hazardous territory for the progeny of a film that transcended the formal boundaries of a genre and, for those who enjoyed it, manifested the bittersweet touch of human being in all its joys and pains and even its moments of monotony. (For the many who hated The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a hazard of a different kind.)
At the risk of misrepresenting Malick’s style by reducing it to a single word—think, “cubism” or “existentialism”—Malick’s style is highly imagistic. That term would appear silly to apply to a film, but Malick eschews many foundational tools used by just about every other filmmaker. Instead of sustained visualizations of a single image, Malick gives us fragmentary images flowing one into another like a montage. Instead of sustained dialogue about a discreet set of subjects traveling along a single broad current, Malick gives us scattered statements and phrases, like errant electrical sparks, loosely unified around a vague, invisible conductor. Instead of exposure to the characters’ spoken words and in turn exposure to their experience refracted through their expressions, Malick gives us both the inner and outer voices of the characters on the screen. And instead of the random notes sounded by all the background noises of life—the chirping bird, the car humming along the road, the whistle of the kettle boiling on the stove—Malick gives us a continual symphony behind the life-like sounds scattered throughout the film. Malick reveals the luxurious and opulence in ordinary and forgotten things—meditates on them, lightly touches them, elevates them, displays their radiance. The style evokes lines from Wallace Stevens:
To-morrow when the sun,
For all your images,
Comes up as the sun, bull fire,
Your images will have left
No shadow to themselves
Still, To the Wonder begins in its predecessor’s shadow as it attempts to find its footing. The first portion of the film looks every bit the facsimile of The Tree of Life. There are the fragmentary images—of two unnamed lovers, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), touring a dark European castle and trolling through the dank streets of Paris with Marina’s daughter, Tatiana—but they rely too heavily on the romance of the setting. There is Marina’s internal commentary—she has fallen for Neil, Neil has re-energized her life—but the poetry is often banal. And there are the touches of grace in ordinary life—Marina frequently dances, at home with her daughter, at home by herself, at the supermarket, always dancing—but they creak under the weight of bearing the film’s entire weight.
Marina and Tatiana move with Neil to his Oklahoma exurb, where Neil works as an environmental inspector and Marina lives like a housewife. But they are not married; Neil resists taking the plunge. Neil’s failures aren’t as severe as they could be: his eyes wander, but no more; he is gruff at times, and the conflict between Olga and him become physical, but he is not an abuser. It is disorienting to watch a film shot and produced so uniquely that the interpersonal conflict at its root is so basic: Neil is simply withholding, and he won’t fully commit emotionally or legally to the woman whom he has brought halfway across the world to live with him, leaving her lonely and not entirely protected. Noticeably, the wide bedrooms and open living room spaces of Neil’s exurban development home are never filled with furniture; even when Marina and Tatiana live in the home, it remains relatively empty. Neil loathes to release his job, his home, his heart, his independence. Marina ultimately returns to Europe; Neil engages in a brief tryst with an older lover from his hometown, and then he breaks her heart. Neil is every bit a king.
It is an unassuming Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), that ultimately makes To the Wonder radiate. Father Quintana leads the empty parish in Neil’s little town, where Neil and Marina attend church. We are introduced to the priest standing behind the altar giving humdrum, monotonous sermons about the forgiveness of Christ, the virtues of marriage, etc. etc. The priest makes his rounds in the impoverished neighborhoods of the little exurban Texas town, where he listens with the humility of a Zosima. But all the while we hear his troubling meditations. He does not feel the presence of the God he serves. He feels only God’s absence. He ambles in a spiritual desert. Father Quintana, like Marina, experiences the sinking and withering one feels in the spiritual vacuum of withholding.
As does the viewer. Malick’s style, with its use of sensory collage to project the eternal present in all its immediacy and desperation, deprives the viewer of all control over his digestion of the art. Like The Tree of Life and Malick films as far back as Days of Heaven, To The Wonder is as lacking in any motive of explanation. Since we have no idea of Neil’s history or aspirations for the future, we have no idea why he is withholding or how he plans (or that he does not plan) to reconcile himself with the emotional and relational ramifications of his isolation. Explanation requires invocation of the future or past, and To the Wonder remains in the eternal present. And so we viewers remain in the eternal present; without an explanation, we are powerless. As viewers we are always powerless; we only think we have power. We presume that Neil’s withholding or God’s distance is somehow soluble, somehow less inscrutable, if we can find a reason for it. We think the bombing death of eight-year-old Martin Richard will be more explicable if we understand the motives of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the frustration of displaced immigrants, an inspiration in global jihadism. We should ask Martin’s family if that explanation would make his death more palatable. To the viewer of To the Wonder, Neil is simply hard and distant, God is simply absent. The highest function of the viewer watching To the Wonder is simply to experience the Absence alongside Marina and Quintana, and to sympathize in the limits of their faithfulness.
It is said already that To the Wonder is Malick’s most religious film. Malick does not muzzle the priest’s doctrinal affirmations, and there is a montage in which the priest’s creedal ruminations—born of desperation and exhaustion, the most convincing voice-over in the film—overlay images of a final visit to the impoverished members of the town. Their confessions and pleas revolve around a single theme familiar to readers of this publication, and the effect is portrayed perfectly. This montage is one of the most gorgeous and heartbreaking sequences I have seen in a film. Malick displays the aesthetic of religious experience without eschewing the centrality of religious doctrine. He does so by weaving doctrinal propositions throughout the vagaries of life in all its joy and despair, leaving those proposed truths mysterious, refracted, iridescent, half-perceived. These they always will be, a fact so many of our preachers and teachers are loath to admit, which is why so much preaching neuters and deadens the vivacity and spontaneity of human experience instead of supplementing and enlivening it.
But it is not To the Wonder’s doctrinal explication that makes is so religious, so spiritual. It is the unique style in which Malick takes up his subject, the potent manner in which he makes the viewer participate in the isolation through which Marina and Quintana suffer. Though I hesitate to draw too neat of a dichotomy between the films, if The Tree of Life brings you into the light, rich felicity of the created world, To the Wonder brings you into the despair of being deprived of it. With Malick more than others, form is indivisible from content; the form is the content. Stevens again:
[The pose] moves and speaks.
This is the figure and not
An evading metaphor
His films aspire and often succeed in being life, which is experience, which in turn is religion ascribed to a particular source. Malick is our officiant, the director of our cinematic liturgy.