Here’s a topic for sitting around the campfire: are the worst films by the best directors still better than 80% of what is released? Are say, “Bringing Out the Dead” or “The Hudsucker Proxy” still relative carrots for the eyes when compared to the “Transformer” movies?
Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” is a lot more “The Prairie Home Companion” than “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Following in the wake of his towering masterpiece “The Tree of Life,” “Wonder” feels like a relative back-of-the-envelope scrawl. It’s not bad. It’s actually good. It’s just slight.
The eccentric filmmaker is known as a recluse, or at least publicity shy. Until recently pictures were rare, and he hasn’t spoken formally to the media since the seventies. Yet for the second straight film, Malick opens the trench coat to the dark-socks-and-nothing-else of his life. “To the Wonder” is presumably a peek into his relationship with a French woman whom he married while living in Paris and divorced after moving back to the United States. While it might not be strictly biographical, the story seems personal, and at times emotionally shy.
In terms of style, this is the closest that Malick has pushed to a Pure Cinema ideal, telling the story through lovely visuals (from D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki) with spare dialogue, mostly whispers floating here and there and very occasional voiceovers. Those people who equate drama with shouting and throwing dishes are going to find themselves with a full Whirlpool. Affleck barely says a word. Kurylenko brings energy to the impish French wife, quietly alienated by her move from Paris to Bartlesville, Okla. With so much silence and dependence on the image, the film is like a painting–both more direct and more elliptical.
What “To the Wonder” is missing is the sort of radical philosophical and thematic perspective that powers Malick’s best work. Since his return to filmmaking after a twenty-year hiatus, the Harvard philosophy graduate has driven ambitiously into big questions rarely addressed in the cinema. This has been matched by radical editing schemes that atomize time itself. “The Tree of Life,” for example, is organized less around time and more around ideas.
“To the Wonder,” to the contrary, is a story so simple and linear that it can be classified as a romance. “The Wonder,” the first one, is Mont Saint Michel, a beautiful island monastery in France where Affleck and Kurylenko journey while love is still fresh. The other wonder is love itself, and through it, the pathway to God. Romantic love comes and falls away. Underneath it blooms the possibility for more lasting forms of love – empathy and forgiveness.
Where Malick, nearly seventy, seems to be going is an assessment of his life through the lens of his religion and philosophy. It’s a little like Saint Terry’s Confessions. Perhaps the best way to look at “To the Wonder” is as a single small step toward The Light.