Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”

Count me as one of those people who usually “gets it” with multi-layered, highly symbolic and open-ended books and movies.  I liked songs in the Seventies that ended on a minor not-home chord to depict “ambiguity.  And I was dazzled by Terrance Malik;s glorious “The Tree of Life” link and consider his talents profound.

Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko

His latest movie, “To the Wonder” therefore hit me in multiple ways.  I was frustrated in many places—mostly by the fact that most of the dialogue takes place inside the heads of the main characters.  Olga Kurylenko is Marina, a divorced woman who meets and falls in love with Ben Affleck, an American, while he is traveling in Paris.  Neil (Affleck) commits to her and invites her and her 10 year old daughter to live with him in Oklahoma.  Eventually, their ardor cools and she finds herself isolated and alone as an outsider in Oklahoma.  She finds help from a Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem).

Bardem (increasingly in my book one of the great actors of our time.  It’s a shift if all you know is “No Country for Old Men.”)  is a tortured Catholic priest, struggling to reconcile love and suffering and God and himself.  In much of the movie, we move back and forth from the mind of Marina to Father Quintana, to Affleck and back again.  Marina ponders the mystery of love and a man who is a mystery to her.  She is shut out of his heart.  We have insights, but never completely clear why he cannot let himself fully love her.  Again, that’s probably the point.

Most of the film is bits of action and dialogue mingled with thoughts, questions, and anguish, from inside the characters’ minds.  Marina’s thoughts are in French and in subtitles.  Of course, you have the right to think in any language you wish, and that was okay.  But as the viewer you are always on the outside looking in, trying to figure out what’s what.  And since Malik prefers not to connect the viewer’s dots, you just accept it.

At times, I really wanted the mysterious rumination on inside voices to rest for a moment and just let us overhear one interaction between the actors rather than their jumbled, contradictory ruminations.  Of course, I think that’s his point—outside and inside are confusing, tangled, inseparable from what is happening “out there.”

That does not stop me from enjoying other layers—the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is simply beautiful.  Malik’s vision is stunning, and the moment of crisis when Ben Afflec must face betrayal, love and duty is a spiritual crisis.  It is rare to have films (and let’s face it, many movies now profit by simply blowing up ambiguities, often literally) that hover explicitly over spiritual waters.  This film does, and like “Tree of Life,” fills the imagination with haunting images and insights that will stay with you a while.

That said, it was hard to keep up sometimes.  I only wish we viewers had been able to be a little more in on what was happening.  It reminds me of Jaroslav Pelikan’s comment about religious fundamentalists, relayed by Martin Marty in  presentation I heard many years ago.  He said they remind him of a football team in a huddle.  You know something important is being discussed in there, but all you can see is their behinds.

In this case, it isn’t their “behinds,” it’s the “insides.”  We cannot get out of the craniums and eyeballs of the characters.  We see what they see, think with them,  feel what they feel, consider their deepest questions.  It just would have been nice, here and there, to stop and have lunch and listen to the outside.  It’s like listening to someone talking on the phone.

The inside of one’s head can be the loneliest place in the world.  “To the Wonder” is a long sojourn from one “within” to another without much chance to breathe outside.  Beautiful, though provoking, but I would have wished for more of the story “out there.”

About Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.

Posted on May 4, 2013, in Art, Forgiveness, Hope, Love, Movie Reviews, REVIEWS--Books, Movies, Music, Terrence Malick and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the review – this sounds like one I would want to see and your review might help me to prepare myself beforehand. Your opening remarks also remind me that I need to see Tree of Life. I have a couple of friends who loved it, and a couple who found it a waste of time, but your comments make my friends’ disparate encounters understandable. Now I have two movies to put on my list to see.

    • Thanks, Charles. Yeah, I think you can find yourself frustrated and then in the next moment surprised by something glorious. This one, to me, isn’t on the scale of “Tree of Life,” but if you saw “Thin Red Line” or his other earlier movies, you know they’re different. Some like ’em, others don’t.

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