About an hour into an early-afternoon screening of writer-director Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, a middle-aged moviegoer quietly packed up her popcorn and shuffled out of the theater.
Good Lord, I thought as I watched her go, it's happened again.
I love Malick's work, and I've been lucky enough to catch every film he's directed since 1998's The Thin Red Line on the big screen. Yet To the Wonder is the third consecutive Malick film — following 2005's The New World and 2011's The Tree of Life — that's caused at least one person in the audience to give up and walk out. Now, I may not be the most intelligent guy in the world, but I believe in the power of art at least as much as I scoff at the idea of walking out of movies. Therefore, my mission here is not to praise To the Wonder — although it contains several gorgeous passages more attentive to and agog at the miracle of human existence than any movie I've seen so far this year — but to convince you not to leave it halfway through.
To lesser or greater degrees, Terrence Malick's 21st-century work presents four chief obstacles. Here's what they are, and here's how to handle them:
1.) His movies are boring. Nothing really happens in them: To the Wonder's story is admittedly difficult to summarize without yawning. A young woman in Paris (Olga Kurylenko) falls in love with an American (Ben Affleck) who takes her and her daughter to live with him in Oklahoma. After the woman and the man split up, the man has a dalliance with a former classmate (Rachel McAdams). Later, he reunites with his former girlfriend, who seeks counsel from a troubled priest (Javier Bardem) when her relationship with Affleck falls on hard times.
(A sea turtle also makes a cameo.)
For Malick, though, the precise details of this oft-told story matter far less than the intricacies and fluctuations of his characters' minds and souls, which he often conveys through physical movements. Whenever Kurylenko dances or whenever Affleck walks alone among the suburbs and the industrial rubble, they're using their physical vocabulary (Affleck's action-hero gait, Kurylenko's banner-like responsiveness to wind and weather) to assay the struggle of individuals trying so hard to be in the present moment that their lives are simultaneously exultant and crushing. Naturally, they can barely find the words to express themselves.
2.) But that's the problem; hardly anyone talks to anyone else during the movie. And when they do, it's not in English: Many, many memorable lines of dialogue in this film concern the search for truth, whether it assumes the form of love ("I thought I knew you. Now I know you never were") or of God ("Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you"). But none of the characters shares these revelations and musings, because between thought and expression lies a lifetime. Plus, Malick uses voice-over narration in an unusual fashion. It's not present to fill in any plot holes — it acts as a counterargument, commentary, or poetic analogue to the on-screen image. And yes, Olga Kurylenko delivers most of her musings in French, but think of her as a far more fetching and down-to-earth truth whisperer than the relentlessly inquisitive French semiotician lording over Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her. That was another challenging movie obsessed with the mystery and meaning of the everyday. Both films share a similar conviction: Whether it's lace curtains, wheat fields, or coffee cups, curious, abrupt questions still stir within everyone at any time.
3.) Still, it's hard to tell what's going on because so many scenes lack a beginning and an ending: As he's gotten older, Malick's movies have grown more impressionistic and abstract; according to the Cinemetrics web site, The Tree of Life had nearly twice as many individual shots as his debut, 1973's Badlands. More than ever, Malick's restless camera bobs and weaves like a child or a dying man trying to see as much as possible before he's gone. (He also apparently shoots everything in 360 degrees, so there's no angle potentially left untouched.) This may be why To the Wonder lists five editors in its closing credits. Their editing further abets the general sense of disorientation by shearing sequences into half-remembered fragments that rely on free-associative feeling for their impact.
What to do? It works best to embrace this floating-world editing strategy and see each discrete scene as part of a vainglorious attempt to capture both the elemental and the transient nature of phenomena as disparate as snow in Oklahoma and the incoming tide at Mont Saint-Michel.
4.) There are too many shots of pretty girls in fields: How's that a bad thing?
To the Wonder
Opening Friday, May 3rd