The Reel Deal
TO THE WONDER
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“THE YEAR OF TERRENCE MALICK?”
Is this the year of Terrence Malick? It might seem like a pretty difficult thing for me to claim seeing as Malick’s newest film To the Wonder has inarguably received the most tepid reviews of a career full of films generally lauded with incessant critical praise. But I still honestly think 2013 may be his year, and To the Wonder a sort of too-easy-to-write-off masterpiece.
To start with, setting our sights beyond To the Wonder: it’s only May, the year’s not even half over, and it’s been a pretty good four and a half months for serious moviegoers. I already have a handful of films I’ve given 5-out-of-5s to (some I’ve publicly reviewed, some I haven’t), which is rare this early on in the year, since the Winter and Spring are usually reserved for the crap that film studios don’t know where else to put.
The most interesting thing about these early months of 2013, though, is that most the movies I’ve loved recently have been difficult to discuss without bringing up Terrence Malick. My favorite film thus far, Spring Breakers, is a Malick-through-the-looking-glass view of the debauched culture of excess in which we currently live. Filmmaker Harmony Korine seems to ask us, as I wrote in my review, “Why can’t there be poetry in gratuitous bare breasts and clapping booties? Why must the portrayal of nude beach revelry composed in retina-burning neons that shine brighter than Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip be inherently less beautiful than a Malickian sunflare through a break in the leaves of a forest’s canopy?” It’s a good question, regardless of one’s own personal answer to it.
Upstream Color, another of the year’s best films (thus far), is also almost impossible to discuss without name-dropping good ole Mr. Malick. Though his film is uniquely his own, Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort sees him taking on the role of Malick’s heir apparent in terms of narrative ellipticality and the use of poetic imagery to drive ‘story’ forward through mood and tone more than through conventional notions of plot.
And the list goes on…from the phantasmagoric, surreal approach to Malick’s impressionistic style that we see on display in Carlos Reygadas’ complex film Post Tenebras Lux to Hollywood’s as-yet-unreleased but soon-to-be-big-blockbuster Man of Steel which may prove to not be Malickian in the slightest but whose original teaser trailer I almost mistook for a Malick trailer the first time I saw it, Terrence Malick’s visual and narrative techniques and style seem to be popping up everywhere. His influence is all around us, but 2013 may also be the first time where we’ll ever actually get two films made by Malick himself released in America in the same year (seeing as for much of his career we had to wait years, if not decades, between films). There’s potential even for three releases this year, but let’s not hold our breath…
Whether or not we get a second (or third) Malick film this year though, we already have one on which to focus our gaze–and, as a self-proclaimed Malick apologist, I’m thankful enough for that, even if it has been much-maligned. Critics have dismissed To the Wonder as “a high-end perfume ad” and “a high-budget spoof of a Terrence Malick movie,” one going so far as to proclaim that “never was a film so visually stunning and so intolerable as To the Wonder.” Slate even decided to make a quiz where the test-taker has to decide whether specific lines are from the voice-over narration in To the Wonder or a De Beers diamond ad. Rex Reed, though, was perhaps the most damning of critics, giving the film no stars, and finding even more to hate in Malick’s movie than he had in Melissa McCarthy’s bulk: “Plotless and almost mute, To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about…nothing.”
I guess I should start by saying I agree with most of these harsh words–To the Wonder is kind of plotless and almost mute, and it does feel somewhat like a really long perfume ad, making even The Tree of Life seem somewhat conventional and action-packed–and yet I absolutely loved the film in spite of, or more likely, because of, these supposed “flaws.”
The novelist David Markson wrote his last four novels to be essentially plotless and characterless: “A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, Writer would like to contrive. And with no characters. None. Plotless. Characterless. Yet seducing the reader into turning the pages nonetheless.” He wanted to see how little of the conventional stuff of narrative had to be in a novel to still get across ideas, feelings, reverberations. Terrence Malick has long been embarked upon a similar project. And if you view his project in this context of distilling a film to its bare essentials, then To the Wonder seems to me to potentially represent a crowning achievement of cinematic minimalism. It isn’t my favorite of his films, and I wouldn’t want to argue it’s his best either, but it certainly is his most distilled film, and thus feels like a culmination of everything he’s been trying to do in his movies all along in some way or other. Many claim, and perhaps rightly so, that it is too distilled, that the characters become mere ciphers rather than actual beings, and sensibility a stand-in for story. For some it may be too far, but “too far” can only be determined by the arbitrary line each of us set ourselves. For me, he hasn’t crossed any lines into intolerability yet.
That said, I can understand the critical vitriol being hurled at Malick. To the Wonder isn’t a common moviegoing experience, even for the Malick-initiated. Where I would argue that Rex Reed is wrong though isn’t in his calling the film plotless and almost mute–I can concede that To the Wonder may very well be those things–but I can’t let slide his remark that it is a film “about…nothing.” It may feel like a perfume ad in that it has a certain poetic surface that may seem to be lacking in artistic depth, but just because one fails to find depth easily, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. You can’t wade into the waters of your local beach and then proclaim that this narrow search proves that the ocean is no more than 10 feet deep. By nature of knowing Malick as a filmmaker with obvious depth (look at his oeuvre, damnit!), one likewise shouldn’t just toss aside the film as frivolous. The Mariana’s Trench exists, and To the Wonder‘s depths exist too, they’re just not as instantly accessible as they are in most other films.
It’s a film about love and loneliness, and the crises we face as we undulate between moments of solitude and loss and moments of communion and accretion. In it we find the whole experience of life, much like his last film The Tree of Life, except here the scale is smaller, more intimate, and yet, ironically, the characters and the story are painted with much broader strokes, and left vague. While the characters and scenarios may not be well-defined, I think that’s because we are meant to fill in the blanks with our own personal histories, our own secret desires, our own buried emotions. In that way, the film becomes an almost dreadfully serious Mad Libs, which may be “intolerable” to some, but which, for me, attained some sense of the sublime.
So if To the Wonder does feel like a perfume ad, the scent Malick is selling is the fragrance of life itself, which is a scent perhaps too au natural for some, too faint for others, but which left me intoxicated with the aroma of existence–exhilarated and exhausted in the same ways that life exhilarates and exhausts us all.
To the Wonder is a film written and directed by Terrence Malick. It stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem. After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina and Neil come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Design by Lulu Vottero
Film Still from To the Wonder, Photography Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures