To The Wonder (2013)
Written & Directed by Terrence Malick
Everybody likes Malick. Anyone who says they don’t is full of shit. There are moments of pure transcendence in each one of his films, whether you like the whole thing or not. Shots where the light coming from the sky is godly, or where an actor or actress looks better than they’ve ever looked, or where the camera makes a perfect yet seemingly impromptu motion. You can’t love movies and not go crazy over that sort of shit.
However, he can be quite frustrating at times. This is almost entirely due to the fact that he’s a very subjective editor. Most films that exist are edited fairly objectively—and I don’t just mean linearly, I mean that most of the cuts are for purpose, not for feeling. Malick, on the other hand, cuts mostly for feeling and vibe. This gives each one of his films its own personal wavelength, and you’re either riding it gleefully, or watching it pass you by, wondering what the hell is going on.
Tree of Life is one of his films where I definitely felt the latter. It’s a mess of a movie, but I also think there’s a great movie trapped inside it, and we see glimpses of said great movie during the middle 90 minutes or so. I think I could cut a movie out of his footage that, to me, would be a perfect, five-star movie. As it stands, I’d give it about a two-and-a-half, but I’m sure this version is something Malick considers perfect. And fine, whatever, all the power to him. It’s his footage, not mine.
I haven’t loved a Malick movie since The Thin Red Line. The New World didn’t do much for me, and as I said, Tree of Life didn’t either. So I was fully expecting to feel lukewarm about To The Wonder—especially since the reviews were atrocious. This one sits at 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas Tree of Life sits at 84%. All signs pointed to Malick having gone full retard.
When it went to Netflix Instant, I decided to give it five minutes just to see what the negative fuss was about, roll my eyes, and move onto something else. Well, color me surprised. Not twenty minutes into it, I had to pause and catch my breath because I was so goddamn shocked that there wasn’t anything I disliked yet (which is a lot to say for a movie that Ben Affleck is in). I was gripped. What movie had these other people seen? It certainly wasn’t the one I was watching.
Let me try and describe To The Wonder’s wavelength for you, in the hopes that maybe it’ll help you aboard it. Wavelengths are hard to describe though, because they’re so damn vibe-y, but here goes. Basically, the movie is about trust and love and commitment, and relates falling in love with somebody (some seemingly knowable version in your heart of a person that, ultimately, is unknowable) to having faith in God. It’s about how romantic relationships can be quite spiritual, and how crises of faith are not at all unlike crises of love. So the whole movie is this swooshing, sweeping poem about all that, with no real answers, just questions for you to possibly relate to. There’s a lot more to it of course, but that’s the basic gist.
Everyone’s relationship history is different, so I can’t promise any of these themes will mean anything to you. But I definitely related to many parts of this film. And even further than that, it helped me understand love between Christians. I was raised pretty secular—never really set foot in a church until my late teens—so a lot of that huge facet of many Americans’ lives is a total mystery to me, including what romantic relationships are like between church-going folk. This movie shines a light on the specific temptations and difficulties they may go through, and it does so not so much in a fly-on-the-wall way, but more a fly-inside-the-head way.
This is accomplished most blatantly through voiceover, but a great deal is nailed through clever visuals. Malick has a way of making you feel as though you’re observing the world through the characters’ eyes, and I don’t just mean POV shots specifically. It’s more about his rhythm and the way he treats surfaces. My favorite example of this is the wonderful approach he takes to shooting floors. He doesn’t treat them like floors at all. Sometimes they’re damn near like walls or ceilings. He removes the gravity from them through the angles in which he shoots people sitting on them or rolling around on them or whatever. You really feel like you’re there, and it tugs at your emotions by bringing back childhood memories we all have of floor as an amorphous play area.
Similarly, he has a childlike fascination with structures, and shoots them with earnest wonderment. A middle-american carnival ride becomes as jaw-dropping as a living, breathing dinosaur. Cookie-cutter suburban homes take on a similarly awe-inspiring quality. There’s no cynicism to the way he shoots them, just genuine respect and appreciation. This is not to say that Malick paints suburbia as idyllic. This film is teeming with conflict. I just mean that he’s not so shallow as to think there’s something inherently amoral about the setting itself.
All this is well and good and interesting and intriguing, but I have to say, my favorite aspect of this movie is that it I enjoyed Ben Affleck in it. His character is constructed in such a way that even if you don’t particularly like him as an actor, his character works, because he plays a guy you’re not supposed to like or trust. A seemingly phony and shady dude. As the gorgeous Olga Kurylenko experiences romance with him, you feel pangs within you like she’s left you and is now dating some guy you hate and who will break her heart. It’s a wonderfully suspenseful experience, or at least it was for me. For a person who loves Ben Affleck, it’s probably confusing. (By the way, I don’t hate him or anything, I just think he’s kind of whatever and I’ve never been wowed by him as either an actor or filmmaker.)
Anyways, that’s about it. If you like Malick, you’re definitely gonna watch this movie at some point, so me saying ‘hey, you should watch this’ is kinda useless. That’s the thing about him—I can’t foresee myself ever skipping one of his movies. It’d be stupid for anyone to. There’ll always be some cool stuff. If, however, you’ve never seen a Malick film before, don’t let this be your first. I suggest watching, at the very least, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, before delving into this one.
4 out of 5 Codys.