The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
To the Wonder

Written by Adam Gallimore.

Photo from the article To the Wonder marks writer/director Terrence Malick’s first film - in a career that has spanned 40 years - set entirely in the present day. His previous films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) each explored - to varying degrees - America’s past, from minor incidents (illicit romances in Texas of the 1950s and 1910s) to major historical events (the American victory at Guadalcanal in World War II; the arrival of European colonists at the shores of the New World in 1607).

The Tree of Life (2011), however, is predominantly structured around a series of extended flashbacks from the present, with Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) reflecting on his childhood in 1950s Texas, and the death of his brother R.L. Notoriously, the film also uses this framework as a springboard for depicting the birth of the universe and asking existential questions, juxtaposing the massive forces and events that caused us to come into being with the intimate relationships that people cultivate. Modern Jack is adrift in this contemporary world of steel and glass, the camera angled sharply, painfully upward in order to accentuate the scale of the structures that have built up around him and the environment in which he works. It is worth noting that only when the film cuts from Jack in the city to him wandering through the desert that he is able to reflect on his upbringing. The treatment of modernity in To the Wonder is quite different, in part due to the film’s focus on a central romance between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). In this Alternate Take, I wish to use this concept of modernity to analyse its function in the film and how it relates to three key subjects: the environment, communication, and relationships. I will also conclude by considering how issues of modernity and technology have stimulated Malick as a filmmaker, both on a thematic and practical level.

Something that struck me upon viewing To the Wonder was the ecological implications running through the film, but some of the details are so ambiguous that they become borderline subtext. For instance, rather like Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) in The Tree of Life, a mysterious travelling salesman, we are not privileged with the specifics of exactly what Neil does as a profession. We see him collecting samples - soil, water, human hair - for testing, and he is shown talking to various disgruntled people from the local communities, often bearing the brunt of their frustration and anxiety. The assumption can be made that he works for an oil company - an oil tanker reading Formby Oil Co. is glimpsed at one point in the film - and yet, in true Malickian style, this seems to be a subject of internal conflict for Neil. There is a striking jump cut from Neil examining a small oil derrick to a large and busy worksite and, later in the film, we see a refinery situated in the middle of a cornfield, juxtaposing industry and nature, purity and toxicity. This sequence then cuts to a dusty and polluted quarry dug out of the heart of the land, Neil once again wandering around and collecting samples. Sharing a familiar symbolism with imagery in The Thin Red Line and The New World that contrasts beauty and destruction, there is an evocative shot of a thicket of grass rising up from this wasteland, determinedly uncorrupted by its environment. Notably, these scenes are significant in the absence of colour, dominated by patterns of grey that are offset by the film’s otherwise vibrant palette.

This idea of modernity and toxicity can be related to Karl Schoonover’s work on ‘waste management’ in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, in which he examines the appropriation and aestheticisation of the discarded in the films Eclipse/L’eclisse (1962) and Red Desert/Il deserto rosso (1964). Noting the prominence of detritus in Antonioni’s mise-en-scène, Schoonover suggests a way of thinking about the binary between the organic and the toxic, seeing waste as both postmodern and transcendent. He notes how modern forms of waste do not degrade but linger and mutate, emphasising the persistent force of toxicity. To the Wonder seems to share this perspective in exploring this binary on a diegetic level, but also relates it to the failure of union and heteronormativity: modernity’s erosion of nature is implicitly associated to the breakdown of human relations. It also depicts both the beauty and the repulsiveness of the toxic landscape, though Malick seems to see it as an insidious and incremental force of change in contrast to the necessity of adapting to this change that Antonioni suggests in his work. In both contexts, however, waste is non-negotiable and unbounded. There are stylistic and thematic similarities between Antonioni and Malick, too: both filmmakers indulge in formal qualities to realise a hyperformalism that contrasts with classical Hollywood narrative economy; and both filmmakers are interested in the relationships that exist between people and the failures of communication, often resulting in a reliance on gesture rather than dialogue.

A recurring (and oft-parodied) element of Malick’s films is the interaction of his characters with nature; and yet, regarding To the Wonder’s environmental focus, cornfields actually have a thematic purpose. This is especially apparent in the context of the burgeoning relationship between Neil and a childhood acquaintance, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Jane is constructed as a more conventionally 'American' character, framed by frontier iconography that links her to the land, and she owns a ranch that may soon have to be sold. In a scene of outstanding beauty that takes place in an open meadow at dusk, Neil and Jane frolic and embrace, an extended sequence in which she offers herself to him. Later, she tells Neil that she loves him, trusts him, and wishes to be his wife, but again he is unable to commit. “You made it into nothing,” she says in voiceover as their relationship comes to an end. This American imagery is contrasted - in similar fashion to The Tree of Life - with Paris, another modern city filled with people, noise and imposing structures (such as La Grande Arche de la Défense that Marina wanders past). “Paris is dreadful,” she asserts, shortly before she returns to America. The romances themselves are contrasts, the pastoral simplicity of America juxtaposed against the beauty, art and history of Europe, evidenced in Marina and Neil’s excursion to Mont Saint-Michel at the beginning of the film and the stunning closing images of Versailles.

To the Wonder depicts a modern, fractured romance, a couple plagued not by a lack of adaptability - as is the case in L’eclisse - but by an inability to commit. “To commit yourself is to run the risk of failure,” preaches Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in the film. And yet, once Marina’s visa expires, their relationship ends precisely because he is afraid to commit, to take that risk. Neil is a character of such introspection as to avoid verbal interaction almost entirely, and yet women seem to throw themselves at his feet. “Show me how to love you,” Marina implores - is Malick suggesting that we forgotten how to love? While it is understandably rather difficult to relate or sympathise with such beautiful, unhappy people, the film seems to be commenting on antiquated romantic ideals that are interrupted and undone by forces of modernity, or simply not attainable in this day and age. Intimacy becomes harder to achieve in these relationships, often mediated or blocked by the topsy-turvy mood swings experienced by the characters. Neil and Marina are repeatedly shown knocking around their empty house, unable or unwilling to communicate in any way. Homes in the film never feel lived-in, with the couple living out of boxes rather than unpacking their possessions, and furniture strewn randomly around rooms. The community in which they live is also impersonal and forced, evidenced by Marina’s awkward conversation with a neighbour about motherhood. Technology, another key and progressive feature of modernity, is also shown to have a problematic impact. For instance, a failed, interrupted Skype conversation between Marina and her daughter in France emphasises the distance that separates them instead of bringing them together.

This scepticism is also present in the film’s secondary (and less successful) narrative through-line that focuses on Father Quintana. His questioning of his faith and his commitment to both God and his community seems to be a negotiation of the role of religion in the modern world, finding it alternately superfluous and lacking in direction. When Marina abruptly returns from Paris, she and Neil marry in a rather unromantic fashion that emphasises their legal rather than religious communion. Mysteriously, we later see a ceremony of spiritual commitment between them in an empty church, though Affleck’s face is concealed and the camera focuses on Marina's face and hands - is this a dream? A fantasy? Ultimately, it remains unclear, and religion does not hold a firm position in the film. Quintana does seem to finally understand his selfless role in his parish, as a source of support and solace for others.

Like the theme of commitment - the subject of many inept or derivative romantic comedies - adultery is something that has too often been employed as a convenient dramatic device. To the Wonder does not treat Marina’s act of infidelity lightly but communicates the gravity of the situation; she is attracted to a local craftsman (Charles Baker) as much for his artisanal ability (he crafts a zither for her at one point) as his presence and his active desire for her. While acknowledging the clichéd nature of their motel tryst, the act of lovemaking becomes a tender and extremely hurtful scene. Marina’s confession of her infidelity comes at a particularly telling moment, as she and Neil are about to place their order at a drive-thru kiosk. Though it may be a touch on the nose - would you like fries with your heartbreak? - the scene does convey the way in which these characters seem incompatible or out of place, both in modern America and in relation to each other.

This leads me to consider how this has impacted on Malick as a filmmaker. Just as modernity and themes of modern romance and interaction have permeated his recent work - continuing with his two concurrent projects, Knight of Cups and (the formerly titled) Lawless - contemporary filmmaking techniques have entered into his professional practice. It must be noted, however, that while the majority of the digital footage shot for The Tree of Life was not included in the film, it is harder to discern the digital content from the 35 mm footage in To the Wonder. Relating back to Schoonover’s notion that cinema itself is a system of waste management - with the image both generated by and resulting in waste - Malick’s shift to digital filmmaking is significant in terms of how it complements his 'wasteful' shooting style. For instance, consider this anecdote from Kurylenko in The Guardian about shooting To the Wonder:

Oh, we all knew, we did so, so many scenes which would never make it - and I did a year of the voiceovers afterwards, and you never really leave a Malick film. We were doing it all for Terry's inspiration, so he could make the film after we’d stopped filming; he just loves having the actors' material there. Ben [Affleck] would say, from the side of his mouth, "You know this is never getting in" and I'd smile and nod, and so we’d just have some fun.

It seems as though Malick is one of the few filmmakers - like Woody Allen or Paul Thomas Anderson - that is frequently granted the necessary creative freedom by his financiers (Malick has a long-standing relationship with producer Sarah Green), even if this comes at significant cost. It could be said that, in terms of waste, digital cameras allow for Malick’s continuous filming strategies to be employed at little cost, and therefore it is time - testing the patience of the actors and crew, as Kurylenko suggests - rather than money that is being wasted.

There is no doubt that technology - notably digital forms of filmmaking and editing - has enabled his particular brand of expression. For instance, over 1 million feet of film was shot for The New World, compared to the 100,000 feet used for Days of Heaven; this abundance of material - "shooting for coverage" - is made coherent due to non-linear digital editing systems. But this a new Malick or is this simply the natural progression of a consistently non-conformist filmmaker? He has also dangerously approached self-parody in his recent style - more so in advertising than in cinema, in my opinion - with his elliptical, ephemeral visual, his marriage/layering of sound and image, and his much-imitated us of voiceover supporting his familiarly transcendental themes. While other (younger) filmmakers are slowing down or retiring - Steven Soderbergh claims Side Effects will be his final movie; Quentin Tarantino has hinted he will retire after his 10th film - Malick seems to have been re-energised in recent years, moving from long-gestating film projects (The New World, The Tree of Life) to original narratives set in the present day, and that deal with contemporary themes of romance, relationships, faith and being. One can only speculate how this will affect the ways in which Malick is studied, interpreted and (ultimately) remembered as a filmmaker, but he continues to push forward in new and fascinating ways.

This Alternate Take was published on March 15, 2013.

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