The love story of Terrence's Malick's To The Wonder is one of the most honest, accurate portrayals of love I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a work of art.
Malick portrays masculinity and femininity with a depth of understanding few filmmakers or storytellers seem to posses. Ben Affleck's stoic and flawed Neil exudes a powerful masculine presence while Olga Kurylenko embodies the feminine - neither are idealizations despite the romance of the imagery depicting them, however.
Malick does not portray one essence, or way of life, as being better than any other, he simply reveals things as they are with an emphasis upon the simple beauty of existence that may go unseen if we do not love. While his characters are indeed fully-realized human beings with histories and day-today concerns and hopes and dreams, the characters in almost all of his films (particularly The Tree of Life and To The Wonder) exist simultaneously as representations of forces in nature - expressions of the various layers of reality they inhabit.
In each of his films Malick artfully and beautifully breaks down the distinctions between divinity, nature, and humanity - in so doing he reveals a very obvious, but easily misunderstood or ignored truth; that everything in existence is interconnected by forces both tangible and intangible.
Because Malick's films are shot and edited as they are - a flood of carefully stitched together images and voice-overs rarely interrupted by anything resembling a traditional scene - each image becomes synonymous with the other, each voice a reflection of the other. He is able then, through this structure, to show his audience almost anything (a flower, a dog, an old man talking about his neighborhood, a priest giving a sermon, a couple making love, a jet-stream, a staircase etc) and it will remain significant, never deviating from his intention or the larger theme of his collected works. Everything we see is one with everything else we see.
Fellow filmmakers and film-lovers will see in To The Wonder an artist once again hard at work perfecting his craft. The concerns of this latest film are definitely darker than Malick's previous, and where The Tree of Life was seemingly optimistic about the divine presence in our lives and its ability to unite us after our inevitable death, To The Wonder more directly, angrily questions that divinity throughout with Jarvier Bardem's Father Quintana. It is impossible to watch Malick's films without thinking that he himself went through the same struggles as his characters, for he portrays their pain and disillusionment so accurately and honestly that it must come from experience.
This film also explores how painful love can be, that while it can be the means of attaining one's own divinity regardless of their actual faith, love can also be a sickness that warps our minds and souls. Malick demonstrates how human beings exist in a spectrum of pure emotion, fluctuating between the ecstasy of a held hand or a sunset, and the despair of a denied hand and a bleeding wound.
This film, like any good work of art, is open to a wide range of interpretations. Your average movie goer will likely not find this film, or any of Malick's, stimulating or entertaining and that is a shame because his films are for everyone as much as they are for himself. Your film-lover, or critic, will likely love this film - either for its stellar use of the camera or its performances or because it's simply a Terrence Malick film.
Despite my appreciation for this film, I was left dissatisfied.
One of the reasons I was loving To The Wonder so much throughout the majority of it was because its characters seemed more grounded in the harsh realities of the world. They felt forsaken by that divine presence. They struggled with the idea of a traditional Judeo-Christain God. The beauty, and ingenuity of Malick's films prior to The Tree of Life was that the director seemed to be suggesting that earth, nature, is divine enough; that the beauty is in the world, not contained in some sort of all-knowing, all-doing vessel (unless that vessel were the world itself).
With The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, Malick seems to be suggesting that while everything is indeed interconnected and while the divine is indeed in nature, that there also is a God presiding over these events, an intelligence that we yearn to comprehend but never will, an intelligence that may or may not reveal to us the significance of our lives, but will provide us a heaven after we die. The onus then is less upon human beings to supply meaning for themselves, and more upon this force beyond our reach.
While so much of the film is subtle in its exploration of divinity, allowing the characters and the scenery to double as sacred objects of wonder, the ending, based on my interpretation, seems to come down on the side of that galvanizing force being an actual thing, a God that is all around us but is also more powerful than us and somewhat alien to us.
Instead of being true members of this singular, divine reality, beings that are God-like unto themselves, the characters in The Tree of Life and To The Wonder inevitably seem to accept that God definitely exists and that they need God - and the voice-overs and the music and the imagery all combine to suggest to me that this is the way Malick sees the world and the way I should see the world - that yes, we have our own divinity and we are pieces of nature and we are beautiful and we are ugly, but we should also accept Christ into our hearts.
When I watch the ending of The Tree of Life and, to a lesser extent, To The Wonder, I feel like I'm watching a really well-made ad for Christianity.
The film doesn't seem to allow for the possibility that there is no God, which is a possibility one must allow for when accurately examining the human experience - that the universe itself is enough - and the fact that these films seem to tip more towards the stereotypical faith-side baffles my mind given how much of The Tree of Life and To The Wonder seem to function on a very simple, beneficial philosophical point of view; that we are members of a beautiful web of reality that is as malevolent as it is benevolent, and we find understanding through love. Both films seem to be offering up a very specific point of view only to add a final note at the end that drastically alters everything we previously experienced.
The film seems to reassure its characters, and the audience, that we will eventually understand God and that we should place our faith in God. This starts to irk me when I'm watching very Christian imagery mixed with choir music and voice-over about how Christ is all around us, particularly when that voice-over is from a character who previously had lost his faith and had no experience I witnessed to help him find it again (making me wonder where the transformation to a more "positive", traditional view of God came from).
Perhaps I'm misinterpreting these films, but when I watch The Tree of Life, and particularly To The Wonder, I feel like I'm watching a very intelligent man's treatise on how he eventually found God, and came to terms with his faith. That's interesting, and it's certainly presented in an original way, but I find it alienating - which, again, is shocking considering how so much of this film pulls me in and makes me feel connected to something higher.
Perhaps Malick is indeed making the subtle argument that I find infinitely more interesting about God, or the divine; that it is literally in the world we inhabit and nothing more. But I do not get that feeling when I watch his latest films. My negative gut-reaction to these final images and voice-overs certainly stems from my personal beliefs and biases, but, more objectively, the film inevitably becomes heavyhanded, and as a movie goer I feel beaten over the head with a philosophical and theological point of view that seems to possibly condradict itself.
To The Wonder is certainly a good film - calling any Terrence Malick film simply 'good' feels like an understatement & misrepresentation - and I recommend you watch it and formulate your own interpretations.
It is thankfully available on iTunes and on demand. If you wish to see it in the theater - where I imagine the imagery will certainly benefit from a larger screen - then you can find it at these locations: