I didn’t get on with Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life – a pretentious mixture of grass stroking and dinosaurs. To the Wonder, which marks a new age of prolific Malick ventures as opposed to his usual decade-long wait, is in my opinion the much better film. It’s testing, and those with low tolerance thresholds may be bored rather quickly (a couple even walked out of the screening I was in). But every Malick film is a subjective journey, personal to each viewer. For me, To the Wonder is a very special film; a picture which transcends the boundaries between cinema, poetry and photography. It’s a film to get lost in.
In most movie reviews, I endeavour to describe the plot of the film to the viewer. Here it doesn’t seem particularly important. The plot is what you make of it. Malick gives you the bare-bone essentials – a man cannot decide which woman he wants to spend his life with – and hands you over a series of beautifully shot images and lets your mind do the rest. If you resist it, you will hate it. But go with it, and you may well have one of the purest, most organic cinema experiences of your life.
Ben Affleck has been a fairly weak actor in the past. He’s impressed everyone with both his direction and acting in Argo, but for all that film’s greatness (and it really was terrific), I’d still rather appreciate him from behind the camera rather than in front of it. Thankfully Malick doesn’t give him too much to do, as most of the emotion is channelled through Olga Kurylenko as a French woman he takes over to America. Their relationship is a rocky one, however, and she ends up departing, and his interest is turned towards a blonde outdoors-type played by Rachel McAdams.
Javier Bardem also crops up as a priest who is disenchanted by the poverty and bad standards of living surrounding him. He too is searching for something. Meaning, perhaps? Or an answer of some kind – any kind. Viewers with faith may find this segment very touching. Those without, such as myself, are not isolated, however. I would argue that this film as a whole, without being conversion propaganda, is the closest thing to an inclusive, onscreen prayer that cinema has seen. A prayer for what? Life, love, loss? Perhaps all of them, and everything that happens in between. But whatever one takes away from it, the film uses the idea of religious belief in an expressive and fascinating way.
In an age when Hollywood is so ready to package up adult life as a narratively-neat theatre of love, loss and eventual satisfaction, it’s refreshing to see an artist, working with such big names, make a film that dares to be something nearer the truth. Life is not a tidy narrative with perfectly timed twists and turns, but rather a meandering progression of emotion and longing – an elusive hunt for whatever it is one is looking for in order to create happiness. I have never seen a better onscreen representation of this than in To the Wonder.
Rather than simply watching the film, Malick asks you to plunge into a shimmering ocean of images and words (dialogue is often spoken as a voiceover). It’s one of a small collection of films that actively invites your mind to wander off the story and into your own recesses of memory. To the Wonder is more than just a beautifully crafted collection of well-shot scenes; it’s a powerful attempt to do more with the medium of cinema. Whether it works or not is up to you.
To the Wonder (2013), directed by Terrance Malick, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 12A.