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What is Malick doing? Thoughts on To The Wonder

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If you do not know Terrence Malick, you will probably not like this film. To The Wonder is singularly Malick. Rare dialogue and character voiceover sound more like aphorisms than the voices of real people. Unspecific plot lines and close-ups on faces and body parts from behind make the characters seem more like generalizations of people rather than real and alive, with a story and past. But with every Malick movie his trademark glorious Wagnerian music, his natural “magic hour” lighting, and his tremendous skill at capturing the moods and messages of each scene in the natural elegance of its surrounding setting are enough to make you think twice about first impressions.

The opening frames in To The Wonder of classic Parisian statues, fountains, and the Mont-Saint-Michel introduce Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kuylenko) and work alongside her voiceover to give us a sense of love, play, and of exploring. It is where we hear Marina describe her love with Neil as “climbing the steps to the wonder.” This romantic French scene where Neil and Marina meet and fall in love soon changes to Oklahoma, where Neil brings Marina and her daughter Tatiana to live with him. Here, fast food restaurants, the lights of the carnival, and the Oklahoma winds take over the breath of the story. The blocks of fenced houses further mark a change from France and a switch from the earlier play and romance.

At this point in the screening it's already hard to keep up with the story and characters. Between the main characters, Tatiana is easiest to identify with, because she is a child and the actress’s real story and voice naturally comes through. You easily see much more life and character in her than in Neil or Marina. Then Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) begins to speak, and it takes effort to forgive Malick for throwing this new voice so suddenly into the picture, and it takes the entire film to stop hearing Quintana’s lines as preaching and instead as a kinda of foreign language that is saying what every other voice in the movie is saying: that the meaning we find in life is always universal if it’s true, and what is true can only be found personally, autobiographically. The one character who doesn't seem to belong at all is Jane (Rachel McAdams). Her role as a rediscovered love interest of Neil’s is a brief interlude in the scope of the whole movie, but it's an unexplained and unnecessary one. There were many roles that were filmed and ultimately cut, and perhaps even the much smaller role of, for example, Jessica Chastain, who was cut from the final edit, would have been a better addition than McAdam’s Jane.

There is a lot that just doesn’t fit in Malick’s film, things that might fit more on canvas in art galleries, or on stage as a modern dance, spoken word, performance piece. But Malick wants to make films, and there is something he accomplishes as a filmmaker that most filmmakers can only do by chance: capture honesty. Malick finds honesty not only in his own thematic interest in the film, but also in the wonderfully intimate moments of each scene, where the family plays with lampshades on their heads, where Tatiana uses her finger to write her thoughts on Neil’s skin, or the multiple scenes in the house where Marina and Neil seem to always be setting up home but never getting far. There is something rare that Malick always finds in the smallest scenes, with the simplest moments. In that simplicity he manages to fill the scene from corner to corner with meaning and clarity.

Sarah Green, Malick’s producer on his past three movies, talks about “not ever having a full script,” and other cast and crew describe the making of the movie in terms of “evolution” and a story that “wasn’t crafted but discovered.” The actors also had to learn a new process, one with an audition without any dialogue, where they weren’t hired so much for their ability to “just become the character” but for the qualities they “already possess” that could add life in places Malick might never have envisioned. Malick seems to approach his films as he’d approach life, by discovering beauty and life’s patterns through simple, honest steps, often led by instinct, and then letting―as Rachel McAdams says in an interview―“little surprises come out of that.” What Malick can do with the life he sets out to capture and reveal, in his actors, his crew and surely in himself, is worth paying to go see a million times.

Despite the fact that the movie’s story is not of any specific person and therefore cannot say what it wants to say as well as a movie should, To The Wonder accomplishes what it is made for: to make you wonder what you’re watching (Is it movie or symphony or painting?), wonder who you’re seeing (Is Neil a man or an idea or me?), and, if you’re lucky enough, wonder how close your life might resemble the love or misery of the ones on the screen.

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