To the Wonder (2012)

Directed by Terrence Malick

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There is certainly something admirable about Terrence Malick and this film in particular.  It’s so unabashedly Malick, so artful and abstract, with no real dialogue or exposition to lean on.  Before we even hear any two characters speak we see them dance, giggle, run and throw themselves into each other’s arms.  It is as if they move with the choreography of a Broadway musical.

That one of the two leads is Ben Affleck makes this all the more perplexing.  His general disposition doesn’t immediately lend itself to the whims of Malick’s photography.  At times, whether it’s Affleck or his character, he seems entirely uninterested in existing, like he walked onto set by accident and began grumbling at the cameras like they were the paparazzi.

Or maybe Malick sought him out for that very reason, because he doesn’t immediately fit into Malick’s own wondrous, meditative worlds.  What one performer provides for a Terrence Malick film is often far from what ends up onscreen.  He is famous for having cut actors entirely out of a movie (leading to an amusing anecdote from Adrien Brody about being mostly removed from The Thin Red Line).  As Roger Ebert notes in the opening line of his review of that 1998 movie, “The actors in The Thin Red Line are making one movie, and the director is making another.”

To the Wonder resembles most clearly Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life.  Looking and sounding alike, with the same type of rich score and super wide camera angles tracing the actors’ fingertips, he conjures up the same feelings of wonder as in his earlier film.  While I bought immediately into The Tree of Life, however, I resisted doing so this time around.

And I kept wondering why that was.  Maybe it’s just that Affleck felt so out of place, not just apart from this movie but apart from his girlfriend, Marina, too (Olga Kurylenko).  Affleck plays a man named Neil, and the divide between Neil and Marina will become a recurring source of conflict through the film, but not at first, when all we’re meant to feel is the pure, exciting, pulsating love between them.  Though they are characters in their 30s, maybe even 40s, they behave as infatuated teenagers do.

Watching them hook arms and dance around Parisian gardens feels a little strange, simply because they are adults, and when you see adults dance around in a garden that looks to be off limits, well no matter how open-minded you are there’s probably a part of you looking at them with suspicion rather than embracing their apparent joie de vivre.

In The Tree of Life the story centered around a young boy and his childhood as a whole.  That same joie de vivre and overt curiosity about the world fit in tone because they’re children, and I think we can all relate to that childlike sense of awe and confusion with which you take in the world.  Watching children stumble makes sense, but then watching adults behave in the same way, well sometimes it just makes you raise an eyebrow.

My impression of Neil and Marina was that he’s repressed and she has a disorder.  That’s not entirely fair, but she experiences such wild mood swings, which seem to be romanticized throughout the film, and he is stoic to a fault, playing much the same character that he would a couple years later in David Fincher’s Gone Girl.  In both cases he plays a midwesterner who takes his girlfriend/wife with him back to the heartlands, displacing her from her natural environment and any connection to home.  In the latter, though, the Affleck character is effectively deconstructed whereas here he is allowed to carry on entangled in his own curiosities, repression and maybe toxic masculinity too.

The same goes for Marina who’s highs and lows are wrapped up in beautiful music and imagery such that they align with the traditional alternating highs and lows of a movie narrative.  Except this being a movie devoid of much plot, her ups and downs instead feel like the result of mental illness left unchecked.

Though this is all just my reading of such a thing.  Maybe there’s something beautiful about Malick letting his characters be.  Or maybe they are a metaphorical Adam and Eve, certainly existing in the same level of isolation as those biblical figures.

Here he leaves them be like fish flopping this way and that while ensnared in a net.  Their life onscreen is mostly a struggle, and maybe it’s that purposeful framing which sheds some kind of light on the human condition.  What am I saying, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Malick’s movies struggle to be small.  They may be intimate, but they are almost always grand.  The pain felt by Marina and Neil, both with each other and within themselves, is a greater allegory for all of humanity.  Maybe in different ways we feel their same displacement, dissatisfaction, occasional awe, etc.  Maybe we are all just children but with five o’clock shadows and growing wrinkles.

But I think The Tree of Life has its sights set on the same ideas and themes and accomplishes it much better.  Watching children run, fight, play and dance just seemed to flow in a way it didn’t here.  And The Tree of Life doesn’t ignore the sense of deep melancholy which pervades, in particular, Marina.  In that film we also see the young boy as an adult (Sean Penn) and we literally watch him walk through beautiful landscapes straight out of a National Geographic advertisement.  At some point the past and present collide, and we watch him interact with the ghosts of his childhood.

It’s a beautiful movie, and it’s as if Malick recognizes the simple power of gorgeous music and magic hour sunsets and set out to construct another movie around those same things.

So To the Wonder is an odd beauty, one which sticks with me a day after watching it but one which required some buy in.  It starts at a ten and tries to stay there for the entirety of its two hour duration.  There were moments I found visually arresting and even moving, and for that reason alone it seems to me a worthwhile viewing experience.

And yet I found other scenes amusing which weren’t meant to be.  One such example is watching Affleck and Rachel McAdams fight while on the ground in a pile of leaves.  Scenes like that feel like like they are pulled straight from a black and white film made by a sixteen year-old who just discovered Elliot Smith.  Or maybe a perfume commercial.

Up Next: Road House (1989), Police Story (1985), The Mustang (2019)

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