Wednesday, October 2, 2013

To The Wonderful: Terence Malick's To The Wonder

Movie Review: To The Wonder

Director: Terence Malick

Reviewed: 30 September 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Elmore Leonard, the beloved writer, was known for his ten famous rules about writing, one of which included, "Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip."  With his latest film To The Wonder stretching the limits of non-narrative storytelling, eschewing words for imagery and sound, Terence Malick seems to exemplify the inversion of Leonard's statement: Leave in the parts of the film that other directors tend to skip.  His film never offers easy plotting or momentum.  Instead of a conventional, explained relationship story of an American and a Russian woman who meet in Paris and fall in love, Malick focuses on the fragmented memories and gestures of that relationship, swimming in its colors and physicality instead of its plot. Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko play Neil and Marina, but there is Rachel McAdams too as Jane, another love of Neil's.  And Javier Bardem rounds out the cast as Father Quintana, the lonely local priest.  The bulk of the film takes place in a small Oklahoma town's fields of grass, outrageously beautiful skies, and natural beauty, though some takes place in Paris as well.  None of these interactions are cliched or easy in any way, and the emotional core of the film comes from their isolation or connection.

By now, Malick's techniques are familiar but never worn-out.  His characters speak narration which involves questioning of self and God.  His camera tracks behind characters walking and searching, nearly always passing through doorways and boundaries.  His cuts can confidently cross oceans or go underneath an ocean.  In truth, Malick's style demands more attention than the typical narrative film. By releasing us from the strictures of a traditional narrative, he allows us to meditate on time and the nature of memory.  Certain shots in this film are unforgettable: the light in the field, a ballet-like hiding from each other as one character enters a room and another leaves, the unnatural brightness of a nearly empty grocery store.  In a way, this film is a silent film, coherent only through the studying of gestures and bodies.

Terence Malick is a visionary director, an auteur and a cinematic poet who has added To The Wonder to his already impressive filmography.  To The Wonder feels in the moment, present in action and gesture more than conversation.  I do not remember any conversations between characters in this film.  Instead, I remember the layering of questioning over movement, the sense of human being meeting the sky, arms raised, exultant and full of awe.  Malick loves to shoot sunlight bursting through trees, no matter if it is Guadalcanal in World War Two, an idyllic childhood street in Waco, Texas or the forests of colonial Virginia. To end this review referencing another beloved American writer, William Faulkner, Malick's films present a coherent, unity of vision just as Faulkner's did in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. There is a distinct thumbprint as Malick's work builds both within and on top of his own filmography, splintering time and space, unafraid to demand much of the audience.

I gaze in wonder at it all, never daring or presuming to fully understand it, but always appreciative that Malick's ponderings and his images both enchant and haunt.  I highly recommend this otherworldly cinematic experience.

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