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To the Wonder Is to Wonder About Terrence Malick

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Recently, a friend of mine in Tennessee, who is applying for a film school program in North Carolina, started an online film discussion group. Inevitably, one of the first questions posed was "Who are your favorite directors" and inevitably there were ardent Terrence Malick fans and detractors. Film critic J. Hoberman once said, "Where other movies have fans, Malick's produce disciples." I am in the beyond a fan camp; his films have affected me in ways that other films never really have, in awe, in sorrow and in longing. I am in Malick's pulpit until the end.

Up until the release of To the Wonder this Friday, Malick had only made five films in 39 years, but all five films have topped their respective years of release on my ridiculous, personal top 10 films every year from 1940 onward.

I am getting this gushing out of the way perhaps to make amends for my only written review that exists of a Malick film: it was in a high school newspaper when I was 15 and I absolutely trashed The Thin Red Line. As an adult who has now experienced enough life, relationships and various American vistas, I personally feel very attached to his filmed world. He taps into a visual joy of the natural and internal, amidst a contemporary disillusionment that I feel on a regular basis.

Having said all that, perhaps I am getting my gushing out of the way because To the Wonder is the first Malick film that didn't stir a distinct, unique reaction to my own personhood like all of his other films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The New World and The Tree of Life) had done; there is beauty and craft, in To the Wonder but an icier detachment from his characters, perhaps indicating it's but one piece of a different puzzle: Malick himself.

When To the Wonder premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, it had a divided camp of passionate praise and giggling walkouts, or chortles that the first word spoken in the film is "newborn." The overriding consensus from the premiere was that this was "lesser Malick." I refuse to ever utter that phrase. The only thing that can be lesser Malick are the 20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line that he wasn't making films -- the film world was lesser for it.

It is those 20 years off, and the prefix of the word "newborn," "new," that are the perfect jumping off points in discussing To the Wonder.

Let's start with "new." To the Wonder begins with two lovers on a train (Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck), gleefully basking in the limerence of a new romance -- he the visitor in Paris, she the Malick Pixie (Parisian) Dream Girl with a young daughter -- as they visit the old world, and the island castle at the Mont Saint-Michel. This is the first film that Malick has set entirely in the current calendar year, and though he begins with a visit to the Old World, the lovers are first filmed en route with a grainy camera phone.

Kurylenko and her daughter move with Affleck to the USA. My initial reaction to the film was that To the Wonder felt akin to a modern day buffalo instead of dinosaur, Tree of Life. But the best companion piece in his filmography is probably The New World. The steps to the Mont Saint-Michele are older than any European-built colony in the USA, and regardless of any posturing we are still a country built on the whispered word "newborn." In an inverse of Pocahontas in The New World, Kurylenko is the European on her first visit to this expanse (she does twirl and dance in what's left of the natural surroundings, the fields outside of the newest subdivisions and strip malls of Oklahoma); and, although Affleck is involved, like John Smith, in the construction of buildings in this more modernly-settled landscape, he only oversees its construction, walking through the mud, detached, never creating the actual structures himself. This is the New World.

There are three characters that we follow in To the Wonder. They are all detached from their surroundings. Kurylenko is not in a postcard or magazine spread America, she is in a small Midwestern town where another immigrant (Romina Mondello) disdainfully walks with her down the street yelling in Italian, "come out" to the houses where the only evidence that someone lives there are their cars in the driveways. Kurylenko has no purpose there other than love, and that is slipping. Her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) is enamored with the cleanliness and sterility of the supermarkets. Everything is new, but without character. Affleck's house is barely lived in, barely unpacked, and carpeted. The love from a traveler, where every experience is exciting has given way to personal stagnancy. Kurylenko is fantastic and (as there is very little dialogue) delightfully expressive with almond eyes and fluid movements as she volleys between maintaining a childlike hope and giving in to abandoned malaise.

Javier Bardem plays a priest who no longer gives impassioned sermons; his voice has authority but no longer seems close to God. He visits the downtrodden, the poor, the meth addicts, prison inmates, the lost souls -- and he is pushed further from his ordained identity. Affleck is primarily used for blocking. He is a man with the fewest words in a film with few words. He is joyful and youthful in Paris, and glum and slow in his hometown. Affleck mostly just walks from room to room in his house, he never seems to make it a home, he does not approach Kurylenko with the passion of before, and he treads through worksites that have polluted the community water.

The approach to Affleck's character is a bit maddening, but, affording Malick the deserved auteur theory, we can arrive to the 20 years that Malick was away from film. In those years little is known of what he did, other than that he disappeared to Paris for a period, and while working on a script that was never made, a producer tracked him down to check in and Malick informed him that he was walking from Texas to Oklahoma "looking at birds." An extremely private man, even to the woman he was married to, Malick has given us Affleck as (possibly) a stand-in for himself, and decidedly, he only observes the woman he has brought to this new world, his world, a place where she no longer knows him.

Perhaps weary of his own mortality, Malick is entering an interesting stage of his career: he shot three films back to back to back and is editing an extended film from the creation of the world sequence in The Tree of Life. To the Wonder is the first of three personal films (the next are two films set in his longest lived creative communities: Hollywood and Austin, Texas; filmmaking and music), perhaps the respect but lack of love that I have for To the Wonder could be re-evaluated after his next two films are released. Maybe it is a trilogy, a window into the unknown years of Malick. Maybe it is not meant to be that. But, to me, it seems fitting that in the modern setting of To the Wonder that Malick stages a few scenes in a laundromat: no longer doing the laundry of America's past, Malick is doing his own.

To the Wonder opens in Los Angeles on Friday at The Landmark, and will also be available via Video on Demand. Note: Jessica Chastain, Barry Pepper and Rachel Weisz had their scenes/characters cut from the final film, and although she's not mentioned in this review, Rachel McAdams does indeed survive Malick's edit.