For the past week, Grierson has been at the Toronto Film Festival seeing the movies we're all going to be talking about for the next few months. Today is his first of two dispatches.
Beyond his movies' other obvious strengths—their poetic visuals, their melancholy portraits of Edens despoiled by humanity—one of the most important elements of director Terrence Malick's legacy is how reclusive he's been. After making a grand total of two films in the 1970s, he went away for 20 years before returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. Then another seven years for The New World, then another six for The Tree of Life. In between movies, he doesn't do interviews or serve on juries of prestigious film festivals—he just disappears, which only helps provide each new film with an air of excitement and mystery. That shouldn't affect how we judge those movies, but it's inevitable that sometimes it does.
His latest, To the Wonder, premiered at the Venice Film Festival at the beginning of the month, and by the time I saw it in Toronto about 10 days later, there was a sense among my colleagues that it wasn't that big of a deal. In part it's because To the Wonder isn't as momentous a film as The Tree of Life, but also it's because—judging by other people's comments—there's a little less excitement now that Malick currently is conducting himself more like a typical filmmaker. He's still not putting himself out in the public eye, but he's pumping out movies on a more regular basis. (He has a few more on the way soon.) For Malick fans, this should be cause for celebration, but it does diminish some of that mystery connected to his movies. To the Wonder isn't an "event" like The Tree of Life was. Ultimately, I think that's a good thing: His new film is a smaller, more intimate work. It doesn't need to be weighed down by the importance of its own existence.
The interconnection between To the Wonder and The Tree of Life goes beyond the closeness in their releases. Like Tree, To the Wonder incorporates a string of Steadicam shots that make it seem like we're an angel or a god floating around and above the characters. Both feature similar versions of Malick's favored voiceovers—whispered ones that are addresses from the characters to each other or to an unseen divine power. Both feature ultra-masculine men who can't quite make an emotional connection, and, according to Karina Longworth, Wonder even uses Tree footage. I didn't notice exact duplication of shots, but certain images of nature intercut into Wonder definitely felt like Tree outtakes.
As a result, To the Wonder can't help but feel like a lesser companion to Tree of Life—the Amnesiac to the far stronger Kid A. But for its first hour, I preferred Malick's newer film. Largely eschewing the grander existential questions that fueled Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a simple love story. As the film starts, an American man (Neil, played by Ben Affleck) and a French woman (Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko) are falling for each other in Paris. Eventually he talks her and her daughter into moving to Oklahoma to live with him.
There are no meet-cutes, no big scenes where we learn about the secrets of their attraction. Instead, there are brief snapshots of moments of happiness—often without dialogue—that are supplemented by nonspecific voiceover from Marina. You never get to "know" these characters, but To the Wonder's power stems from the fact that you don't need that information. Malick isn't trying to define characters: He's dramatizing the stages of love in their emotional specificity, and for such a romantic filmmaker it now seems obvious that he could do this especially well. From the start of To the Wonder, there's a inevitable sense that such perfect love can't last—Malick has made a career setting up earthly paradises and then burning them down—and so each moment is suffused with sadness.
Eventually, complications ensue, but they're not plot complications in the ways we usually understand them. Things "happen" but only in the vaguest way possible. Neil and Marina split because of his inability to fully commit, but there aren't specific scenes where we learn how or why. Rather, everything is hinted at and implied—nothing is concretely expressed. That should be frustrating, but it's not: Each scene is its only little dream or memory of a love affair building and then dying.
And Malick doesn't just do this with one couple. After Neil takes time apart from Marina, he becomes involved with a childhood friend (Rachel McAdams), and the same process repeats. Likewise—and this is where the film isn't quite as strong—Malick gives us a priest (Javier Bardem) who is struggling with a different kind of emotional closeness. The priest feels abandoned by God's love despite his constant efforts to bring comfort to his parishioners.
All the characters are bound together by an inability to find contentment, no matter how hard they try to seek it out. (That sense of disappointment might even extend to Michael Sheen and Rachel Weisz, who were both cut out of the movie altogether. It's a risk when you sign up for a Malick film.)
To the Wonder's close examination of its vague characters feels minor, but I think that's appropriate to the film. This movie can't scale the heights of Tree because the problems of a few brokenhearted lovers aren't quite as significant as the lifelong angst that family can bring. (For those who balked at Tree's intermingling of the creation of the Earth with a Texas clan's unhappiness, a similar juxtaposition of the cosmic and the pedestrian here would have seemed even more strained.)
Malick does go for Tree-like profundity about the divine in To the Wonder, but it feels less beautifully orchestrated—not to mention overly familiar. But even working in a minor key, Malick still radiates awe and wonder. I don't care that To the Wonder isn't an event—I prefer movies.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.