If The Tree of Life, or any of Terrence Malick's films before that, were a novels worth of ideas and imagery put to film than his latest, To the Wonder, feels more akin to an essay. Shot in what is essentially the exact same, and very recognizable style with which he shot his aforementioned previous film Malick again collaborates with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; the pair have concocted a style that allows for the unconventional way in which Malick chooses to make movies all the more poetic. The flowing shots of actors conveying the emotions and tones needed to imply the drama of the story Malick is attempting to tell is always beautiful and though I could feel I sometimes sensed the confusion on the part of the actors (especially Ben Affleck) they are more times than not able to materialize the emotions and moments that Malick is so desperately trying to capture in their most honest state. If you know anything about the elusive director than you automatically know his films aren't for everyone and despite his output increasing over the past few years (and in the near future) he continues to stray further and further from convention. This is not a bad thing, not in my humble opinion anyway, despite the fact I wasn't completely enthralled with this film as I was The Tree of Life. Still, there is something about the depressing love story at the center of To the Wonder that also makes the film an effervescent experience and one that is unequaled by anything else you will see at the movies this year. Is the lack of structure and normalcy all that makes the film different and likely unappealing to many though? The answer is an easy no. To the Wonder literally paints a portrait of love and loss in a way anyone who has experienced either emotion would certainly be able to understand if they are willing to pay attention. Memories are what make life worth living and Malick draws on those moments to create what may not make sense as you watch it, but leaves you with feelings and thoughts that are hard to shake.

Ben Affleck and Olga Kuylenko in To the Wonder.
The film opens with Affleck's Neil courting a lovely Marina (Olga Kuylenko) in France as they tour the Mont St. Michel cathedral that is appropriately gorgeous and beyond photogenic and as the two walk through the architecture in which you can truly sense and get a feel for due to the naturalistic light and effortless motion with which the lens sweeps over the canvas we see the two of them fall in love. We watch as Marina takes her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), and joins Neil as he travels back to America and where the seemingly plan to settle and become a family. It is when they arrive in the flat lands of Oklahoma that the honeymoon phase begins to fade and problems arise. Even anger, in such tranquil shots with continuously gloomy music draped over every inch of the film, there are feelings that arise delivered through only moments of dialogue but moreso in the body language and facial expressions of the actors that tell us everything is not well. It is in these moments that we come to understand the power of Malick's storytelling tools. He understands the complications of human relationships and how they are too complicated even to try and compact into dialogue that will only scratch the surface of what he'd really like to say. So, instead of even attempting to summarize the director allows his camera to roll and capture the actors who seemingly understand their characters and the places they are at in each of their respective lives play out by instinct in hopes that what is produced hints at the honesty that the audience will recognize from their everyday lives. When Neil and Marina begin to drift apart Neil re-connects with Jane (Rachel McAdams) a woman from his past while we are also made aware of a Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest far from his home that is struggling with his faith in the small Oklahoma suburb.

Though I expected the stories (no matter how vague) of Affleck and Bardem's characetrs to overlap more than they eventually do this is not the point of having two parallel yet seemingly unrelated stories play out in the same film. While Neil, who professes in the film that he is not a believer when it comes to religion finds his battles more in the realm of love and the difference in the romantic ideals of that word and the reality of it while Bardem's priest is constantly crying out to God for some type of guidance to remedy the doubts he is having with his faith. Though I would have enjoyed more time devoted to Bardem it is made clear the point of the specifics of his issues aren't as important as how he results to deal with them. While he struggles to find meaning in what he does and if the entity he's devoted his life to will return any favors, Malick shows us the sanctuary that contains the beautiful stained glass windows he so beautifully renders as a reminder of the different worlds that come together underneath that roof. He is a solemn figure whose dialogue is usually in voiceover and only briefly does he meet with either of the lead characters. What he does to juxtapose the central love story is touch on the general solemnity of his role and the loneliness that comes along with it that lends the mind plenty of time to not only grow in the faith that should ideally fill a priest, but also to ponder the credibility of beliefs and how much weight they hold when based on an age old book. That is not to say Malick intends to champion the idea there is no God, but instead he seems fascinated by the idea of not just religion but faith as the huge entity that it is in so many peoples lives and the mystery that surrounds it and only intensifies as we grow older. As he does with love, he never lays out any solid conflicts that Bardem's priest has to overcome to give a satisfactory conclusion, but instead he leaves the audience ruminating with as much mystery and questions as Quintana feels for his heavenly Father.

Javier Bardem is a troubled priest in Terrence Malick's latest.
The large amount of depth that Malick seems to want to cover is made so quaint by the execution of the film. And despite this merely feeling like a cliff notes version of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder does have some stand out moments, especially visually, and does nothing short of starting a conversation. The ethereal feel that Malick enlists to convey his themes make the experience a dreamy one, but they also lend the films a gravitas that help them feel more than a simple movie, but indeed an experience that is meant to enlighten and get you reflecting and thinking about life, but not necessarily in those terms of what it all means. No, for that would be too broad and too mundane a task for Malick, the writer, to muse upon or propose his audience do. What the writer side of the director means to do seems to be to help us realize the preciousness of the one thing we all have, but can easily lose: time. Time is everything in this life and in a world so fast-paced and as a race so motivated by looking forward to the weekend, structured so routinely by the society that has us looking forward to what's next we many times forget to stop and bask in the now. It is a valuable lesson and is taught in such a way we wouldn't catch it if we weren't looking for it. That is what I walked away with though as I left Mr. Malick's latest rumination on what he sees the most when he sits down and conjures up memories of what he wished he could still reach out and touch, feel, or simply experience one more time. It has a tragic quality to it as much as it does one of joy. Many could dismiss the film as an artsy mash up of pretty pictures with no other point than to serve a mans ego or exist for the sake of experimenting and failing, but I can't help but to be intrigued by whatever it is Malick decides to touch on. With three more projects coming down the line in the next year or so I am anxious to see if they all stem from the arguable masterpiece that is The Tree of Life or if he continues to innovate and go in a different direction completely; either way, I'm sure I will be satisfied with the results.


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