Terrence Malick made two marvelous movies in the ’70s, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and partly because he then pulled a Garbo and didn’t direct another movie for 20 years, he developed a highly rarefied fan base that became a cult of reverence. To be a Malick appreciator meant that you placed him in a very special ’70s-art showcase. He was a pantheon of one. And when he returned as a filmmaker in the late ’90s, with the mystical war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), the mystical anthro-kitsch culture-clash love story The New World (2005), and then — to me — the mystical masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011), he’d become a very different kind of filmmaker. In many ways, his mature style — ethereal, incantatory, with a soundtrack woven out of whispers and classical music — seemed as much of a response to his cult as the cult was to him.
Malick’s new movie, To the Wonder, which premiered last night in Toronto, is the work of someone who now sees himself as a holy poet of the cinema, an American wheat-fields-and-suburbs heir to the transcendental tradition of the great Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest). The new Malick films are every bit as in love with natural light as they are with drama. He particularly cherishes those moments just before twilight, as if you could feel God’s presence and His absence in the barely waning late-afternoon glow. The films also feature movie stars, but they’re treated like non-actors, as objects for Malick’s roving camera to bob and weave and dance around. What’s more, the films don’t tell stories so much as they contain stories that are like tiles in a much, much larger mosaic — a mosaic that the characters themselves have almost no chance of glimpsing, though the audience can, if (through Malick) it learns to behold the world like God with a hand-held camera.
To the Wonder is Malick’s “purest” experiment yet in this hallowed, flowing, cinema-as-living-dream-space method of staging a movie as a kind of wavery, existential human action painting. For a while, I got seriously caught up in it — caught up in Malick’s saintly/voyeuristic way of staring at his characters, objectively enraptured, as if he were honestly wondering what they might do next. As if turns out, what they do in To the Wonder is highly momentous and, paradoxically, of no great consequence.
To even name the characters would be to personalize them in a way that the movie scarcely bothers to, so I won’t. I’ll just say that Ben Affleck, with barely a line to speak (he’s used for his tall, chiseled masculine presence), plays A Guy who works for a company that’s building a suburb that’s really an exurb: spaciously tasteful and abstract two-story homes so remote that they might be part of a moon colony. Affleck’s character has fallen in love with A Girl, a single mother from Paris, played by the dark-ringlet-haired, model-pretty Olga Kurylenko, and Malick features the two of them, along with his ever-tagging-along camera, in a dartingly inquisitive pas de troix. On holiday in Europe, they travel, and wander, and caress, and love. The first part of the movie is like a moody existential Hallmark card as staged by Lars von Trier.
Then Affleck brings Kurylenko, along with her 12-ish daughter, back to the States, and in their tastefully spare, sponge-painted exurban home, in some wilderness state that’s full of oil wells, we behold the unfolding psychodrama: closeness followed by spasms of anger, then a reconciliation, then a separation (spurred by Kurylenko’s visa running out). All of this is the stuff of drama, but Malick stages it as a series of fragmented, most non-verbal moments; there’s lots of sound, and it’s used expressively, but in terms of dialogue we could almost be watching a silent film. For a while, Affleck gets involved with a home-town girl, played by a custard-blonde Rachel McAdams, who looks just about perfect with him, except that so did the previous girl, and then Affleck and McAdams’ relationship fizzles out in almost the exact same way (not that I can be that specific about it — they barely say anything), at which point the movie begins to get a little repetitive. Then, after a while, Olga Kurylenko comes back, which is when we really start to notice that this Ukranian-born actress doesn’t have a lot of personality, and before long the two are fighting again, which provokes another separation…
Through all of this, there is lots of mood, lots of “caught” imagery of a troubled couple swimming in and out of intimacy, and Malick, let me be clear, is a seductive wizard at this stuff. At key moments, the movie is a mirror that allows you to see yourself. At the same time, To the Wonder makes The Tree of Life look like a Noel Coward play. Not that it’s “inaccessible.” You can always tell, more or less, in the abstract, what’s supposed to be going on. Yet Malick roots the movie in a sense of the pictorially concrete (carnival rides, a herd of bison) while almost obsessively removing any sense of emotional concreteness. We know that Affleck and Kurylenko are fighting, but we don’t know why, and the whole point is that we’re not supposed to know why. “How had hate come to take the place of love?” asks Kurylenko in voice-over, and you’d think that would be a pretty important question, but the film never answers it.
Except that Malick does answer it, sort of, by the end. He has Javier Bardem, haunted and taciturn, playing a local priest, a kindly, saddened man who attends to the wretched and the condemned (Malick has cast them with a touch of Diane Arbus ghoulishness) but who is having a crisis of faith. He’s like a homegrown version of the minister in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. And faith, you see, is the key here: The movie says that the reason for our breakups, our fragmented lives and relationships, is that we can no longer see God, at least not clearly. If we could, then we would be whole again. I can’t disagree with that, but in To the Wonder, it’s also Terrence Malick who isn’t letting his characters be whole, who robs them of specificity to craft his grand religious message. Malick, with this film, dares to go into a space that other American filmmakers don’t: the space of our spiritual hunger. At his best, he touches that place, but at the risk of making his movie into the twee of life.
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