Terrence Malick has had the most fascinating career of any genuinely great filmmaker I can think of. He directed Badlands in 1973, to rapturous reviews. Then came Days of Heaven in ’78. It’s the most exquisite film I know–ecstatically beautiful, tragically moving. But it was released amid all sorts of rumors of cost overruns and set tensions, and didn’t initially do well in the box office. Malick went back to his day job as a philosophy professor, only to re-emerge in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, another film of rapturous beauty, telling a terrible and tragic story, set in WWII. Seven years later, he came out with The New World, a lovely meditation on Jamestown and Pocahontas, then in 2011 came The Tree of Life, a film I consider of the five finest films ever directed. As with all Malick films, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it enterprise. I waxed evangelical to any friend I could make sit still long enough to tell them about it, and many saw it and compared the experience afterwards to that of watching paint dry. Others loved it as much as I do. Can’t think of a soul who was lukewarm.
We have a joke in my family about 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a film I love, and I’ve made all my kids watch it with me. None have liked it at all. I’m accused of liking awful pretentious boring daggone movies; my response: “it’s a genuinely great movie. I’ll concede it is a trifle slow-paced.” And so, ‘slow-paced’ has come to mean ‘unwatchable and boring.’ Terrence Malick films are slow-paced and weird. Let’s admit that upfront.
So my folks were in town, and they wanted to see a movie with us, and two Netflix envelopes arrived and they said, ‘hey, how ’bout one of those?’ And they’d seen t’other one. So we watched To the wonder. My Mom sort of liked it, some. My Dad didn’t, and said so, mocking the film unceasingly. After half an hour, I gave up. Watched the whole thing the next day, while my folks were out visiting other relatives.
And I don’t blame them. It’s easy to make fun of Terrence Malick, to call him artsy-fartsy and pretentious, to say his films are art-house dull, to say they don’t really tell a story. To me, though, I think his films are beautiful. I love his restless experimentation, the indirect approach to story-telling, the way the camera lingers on a single image unconnected to narrative, the way his films deal with issues of faith and forgiveness and pain and betrayal, and ultimately, atonement, reconciliation, rebirth.
To the Wonder starts in France, in Mont St. Michel, the island cathedral off Normandy. An American man, played by Ben Affleck, meets a French woman, played by Olga Kurylenko. We see them playing, gamboling, wading, holding hands, rapturously in love. He takes her home to the States, to his house in Oklahoma. They talk about getting married, but it’s complicated–she’s Catholic and previously married, to someone with whom she has no contact–doesn’t even know how to reach him. She also has a daughter, maybe ten or twelve, Tatiana, who hates America, and ends up moving back to France. Meanwhile, their priest, played by Javier Bardem, has lost his faith.
Malick’s films announce their themes in voice-overs. Dialogue is spare, and usually more or less unconnected to the plot. In this film, we have voice-overs in three languages–English for Affleck, French for Kurylenko, and Spanish for Bardem. Bardem’s are mostly prayers; hopeless, despairing prayers, a lost man desperate to find some way to reconnect to God and to suffering humanity.
Kurylenko returns to France, and Affleck has an affair with an old girlfriend, played by Rachel McAdams. Then Kurylenko returns to Oklahoma, and she and Affleck marry. But she’s terribly unhappy, and we sense that the connection of these two is volatile and strained. She has an affair as well, and Affleck’s character loses it, kicks her out of his truck and makes her walk partway home before relenting. But in time, Barden’s priest serves the despairing rural poor of Oklahoma, death row inmates and other incarcerated souls, and he starts to return to God. And he counsels Affleck and Kurylenko’s fractured couple, and they are restored. And the film ends at Mont St. Michel.
That’s the best I can make of the story. Malick’s camera is restless in this film. Every shot is on movement, and every shot is traveling; I think he shot the entire film with a Steadi-cam. It’s impressionistic, all about images and movement and music and light. The characters rarely speak–I doubt Ben Affleck had four lines of dialogue the entire film–and their conversations are incidental, passing snatches of words half-heard in passing, almost never advancing any narrative.
It’s a film about nature, about the beauty of this planet and images of damaged earth, broken waterlines and cracked foundations. It’s a film about redemption. It’s a film about love shattered and betrayed, and then, maybe, restored. It’s a film much more about exploring questions than providing answers. It’s a film that urges us to bask in beauty, and not worry so much about storylines or character development. We only know the characters’ names if we stay for the closing credits, and we don’t have any idea why they do the often self-destructive things they do. It’s a film full of images to be savored. It’s not just a beautiful film, it’s Beauty: the Film.
If you don’t like films about gamboling gamin waifs, don’t watch this. If you don’t like films about stolid uncommunitive men, don’t bother. If you don’t like films where the main character is suddenly visited by a ‘best friend,’ who tells her to leave America and go back to France, only you have no idea who she is or what she’s doing there or why she just threw Olga Kurylenko’s purse in the bushes, give this a pass.
It’s not The Tree of Life, and it’s not Days of Heaven. It’s a late minor masterpiece by a 70 year old genius, worth watching for that reason if no other. But approached carefully, it’s exquisite. You know yourself whether that’s likely to be enough.