Above: Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem in To the Wonder.
A few months ago in this space I wrote a story in anticipation of Terrence Malick’s newest movie, To the Wonder. At the time the movie was still on the festival circuit, but I couldn’t wait to have my say because my fascination with Malick borders on the obsessive, and I couldn’t stand knowing that luckier writers had scored tickets to either the Toronto or Venice film festivals and would get to write about it first. So rather than wait my turn, I broke the cardinal rule of film criticism: Always see a movie before writing about it.
Now that I’ve seen To the Wonder, and now that the movie is about to be released on DVD, I’m more comfortable saying that I feel a little betrayed. I’ve been disappointed by Malick movies before—no director, no matter how talented, is going to get it right every time—and I had come to accept, after slogging my way through some of the slower and more self-indulgent portions of The New World and The Tree of Life, that Malick has his weaknesses. But at no point did I ever feel like my affection was being turned against me.
And then I watched To the Wonder. For the first time, the trappings of the Malick aesthetic—the swooping Steadicam shots through corn fields, the magic-hour rhapsodies about the meaning of existence—felt less like the vocabulary of an artist searching for meaning than the predictable habits of an established master with nothing new to say. Like a callous and capricious lover, Malick has started punishing his fans with the very things they adore about him.
Malick comes from the school of mindfulness, which subscribes to the theory that any moment, no matter how small, has genuine spiritual significance, and he’s built his filmmaking aesthetic around that belief. Which is why diehard fans like me feel such a connection to his work. His films, at their best, make believers out of frustrated materialists, giving us glimpses of a world where things matter.
The trouble starts when Malick tries to imbue every single moment of his movies with meaning, turning each act, thought and deed into proof of existential glory, no matter how mundane. But just as the human ear will stop registering a frequency after hearing it for too long, a movie viewer will eventually become deaf and blind to unrelentingly meaningful moments. This is the downside of mindfulness: The real world can handle only so much wonder before it betrays itself for what it is—a landscape filled with repetitious tasks and numbing obligations. There is no magic in doing the dishes, no matter what Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, say.
To the Wonder is about love and relationships. And as magical and wonderful and mysterious as love can be, relationships are made up mostly of a million insignificant, prosaic, forgettable moments of the sort that Malick can’t abide. So he has the players in his love triangle (Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams) interact in a perpetual wordless dance of romantic immersion, as if their lives depend on each loaded glance. They run and touch and stare and pet and roll around in high grass and whisper, and when they go sightseeing on the beautiful island paradise of Mont Saint-Michel (the “wonder” of the title), Kurylenko’s Marina gazes at Affleck’s shirt as if it were a part of the tour, while stating, in voiceover, “Love makes us one. Two … one.” To the Wonder is less a movie than a two-hour montage.
I once read that when Marlon Brando was a student at the Actors Studio, a teacher had his class pretend to be chickens reacting to the news that atomic bombs were about to drop on their heads. The other students squawked and leaped and otherwise indulged in chicken-like terror. Brando calmly pecked the ground. Asked after the exercise why he hadn’t gone crazy like the others, Brando replied, “I figured a chicken wouldn’t have any idea what an atomic bomb was.”
Terrence Malick would do well to take a lesson from that story. If, as in To the Wonder, you give your actors nothing to do but be in love, they will approach being in love as a performance, rather than as people existing in the world. They will twirl and spin and do trust falls and generally indulge portentously. But they won’t read magazines or do crossword puzzles. They won’t exist. Every moment will become the most important in their lives, and therefore the least important. And every sweep of the camera, every plunge through the water, will make viewers—especially lifelong Malick fans—feel like every cherished sweep and plunge that came before no longer means quite as much as it used to.