To the Wonder
"To The Wonder" isn’t the movie you think it is. Far from it. If you’ve been following the career of Terrence Malick or read the knee-jerk criticism that often emanates from Twitter after film festival premieres, then you’re probably expecting a smaller-scoped "Tree of Life," an earthy companion to that cosmic parable; another tale of man’s self and love ruthlessly ravaged and then eventually redeemed by the messy chaos of life.
With Malick, the light of God has always shined through to the characters - yes, even to Martin Sheen’s serial murderer in "Badlands." He illuminates their grace. A higher power’s existence, in those films, was the only thing that wasn’t in doubt. For the first time in a 40-year career, God seems to be absent. In "Wonder," tragically, sometimes a light is just a light.
The sheer atypical-ness of it all hits you immediately - we open not with the sky, or landscapes, or wheat fields, but with shaky, pixelated footage shot from a cell phone. Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, flushed with love, are on a train with the latter’s daughter, Tatiana. The camera shakes and bumbles, the ugliness of the footage contrasting with the stars’ glowing faces (and no, I don’t believe the two leads are ever assigned names).
Don’t worry; it’s a false lead. This isn’t a Malick found footage film; we’ll get to the wheat fields and the landscapes and the invigorating Emmanuel Lubezski cinematography soon enough. This is a smaller film for him; the first where he doesn’t hang his narrative onto a larger context (this is a man whose last two stories were framed against the ’discovery’ of America and the birth of the universe). It’s his first to be divorced entirely from the narrative trappings of commercial cinema. It’s neither a step back nor a step forward; it’s a leap into the unknown.
Soon enough we’re flashing back to the titular wonder, the French Mont Saint-Michel, where Affleck and Kurylenko twirled their way into each other’s hearts. He invites her back to the States, time passes, and something seems to be missing. Somehow that feeling so easily achieved among profound French beauty isn’t so easily achieved in a Sonic parking lot. Yes: this is a Malick film set in supermarkets, fast food joints, chain corporations, and gas stations. It’s about emptiness, profoundly, in all its forms; his characters are lost spiritually, romantically, professionally, and culturally. It’s about the struggle to long for transcendence while simultaneously debating whether to get a Coca-Cola or a milkshake.
Javier Bardem presides over it all as a priest, struggling with his faith. Rarely interacting with the other characters, he’s the film’s thematic interest personified. He’s also the only one who does much talking. As I mentioned, this is even further away from the expected conventions of narrative cinema than "The Tree of Life," further divorced from classical notions of storytelling. It’s also a tad messier than we’ve come to expect from him: some cuts seem needlessly jarring; some voiceover is more exposition than texture.
Indeed, many have snidely joked about this film’s preoccupation with position and with movement. Kurylenko and Affleck are wrapped up together in their moments of passion; later their disconnect is portrayed through scenes of their slowly stepping away from each other. When Affleck becomes re-enraptured with a former flame played by Rachel McAdams, she’s lit angelically from above; when their passion crashes, she’s crawling away from him, sprawled inelegantly on the brown and beige earth. It may be a tough sell for a generation of moviegoers raised on cinema whose primary tone was ’ironic.’
This is pure cinema. The emotions are driven not by plot turns or by the dialogue; but by blocking, by motion, by camera movement, and yes, by light. The influence of master silent expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau has always hung over Malick’s work - watch "City Girl," thank me later - and here he fully appropriates that approach (a comparison could also certainly be made to Jean Cocteau; that Malick appreciates his rendition of "Beauty and the Beast" seems a sure thing.)
So Affleck is little more than a surrogate; a cipher; a warm relatable body through which Malick filters his insecurities, his feelings, and his doubts. He uses Affleck to put you through the paces, to impart to you those feelings, to show you an open window and ask you: do you see God, or do you just see a large burning star?
It’s a question worth pondering next time you’re peering through the windshield at the drive-thru.