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Notes on Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”

Juxtaposing transcendence and the everyday, beauty and the abject, To the Wonder is profane in ways Malick never could have intended.

Where's all the shit?

I scribbled this question on page three of my notes, which would put it near the midpoint of To the Wonder, soon after recent emigree and single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) returns to Paris with her young daughter, thereby freeing her commitment-phobic lover Neil (Ben Affleck) to pursue Jane (Rachel McAdams), a former flame who's moved back home to manage the family ranch. It's my favorite section of the film because it's Malick at his most malicky. We're treated to shot after shot of Affleck and McAdams posing poignantly in fields of tall grass, always at magic hour, always just a touch wind-blown. As the music swells, Jane glides toward Neil, her red dress a small explosion of dancing color. It's as beautiful as anything Malick has ever shot. My next note reads, "Nice sequence. Like an MGM musical." I'd never before thought of Vincente Minnelli or Gene Kelly while watching a Malick film, but the viewing pleasures are of the same basic stock. He makes movies, but increasingly I’ve come to think of Malick as a choreographer.

So, really, where's all the shit?

I live on a small farm with two horses, which is a small fraction of the livestock on McAdams's character’s ranch, and I can say with some authority that the shit-to-animal ratio is unnaturally low in To the Wonder. That the crew might have made an effort to minimize the amount of manure in a few shots is hardly worth noting except that this film, to my mind, is a kind of test case for Malick's aesthetic, which worships beauty to such an extent that he seems increasingly phobic of the imperfect and the everyday.

It's an odd complaint to make of Malick, I know. At their best, his films do exactly the opposite, striving to reveal immanence in the natural world. Think of the tree-root cathedral accompanied by the low-frequency rumble of a church organ in The Thin Red Line or the endless rows of sunflowers in The Tree of Life. Make what you will of Malick's recent evangelizing, but he is most definitely what we used to call in my church-going days a “Psalm 19 guy”–one who hears all of creation proclaiming the glory of the Creator. On a literal level, the voiceover ruminations on God in both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder strike me as doggerel (I try my best to ignore them) but the sound of the whispered lines—like the sound of Arseni Tarkosvky reciting poetry in Mirror—can be deeply human and holy.

Page 4: For Malick, there is no sin more grievous than fucking an ugly Southerner.

I've repeated this line a few times since the screening in Toronto, always careful to use the word "fucking.” It’s exactly the right word because Malick lives in a world divided by the sacred and the profane, and in To the Wonder sex is the most obvious site of conflict between the two. Near the end of the film, after Marina has returned to America and married Neil in both a civil ceremony and an unofficial Catholic wedding (she has murky divorce issues in her past that preclude her from an official blessing), she meets a local carpenter who is more attentive to her emotional needs (symbolized by a single shot of him bringing her a musical instrument). When they rendez-vous at a motel, Malick chops the sex scene into one of the film’s many wordless montages. The carpenter is played by Charles Baker (Breaking Bad's Skinny Pete), who isn't so much a human being here as an embodiment of grotesque transgression (symbolized by his pockmarked face and the skull and spiderweb tattoo over his heart). Like most of the film, the sequence exists somewhere between an objective perspective and a figment of Marina's fragile subjectivity. Is this an actual moment in the life of an actual unhappy woman or is it Marina's nightmarish vision of sacrilege? I’m still not sure—both, probably—but to drive home the point, Malick cuts minutes later to a shot of Marina and Neil's empty marriage bed.

In case there were any doubts, To the Wonder confirms that Malick does indeed have a number of grievances with the modern world. He laments the rootlessness of our lives, symbolized by the string of unfurnished homes Neil and Marina inhabit throughout the film. He mourns the devastating effects of commerce and greed on the natural world, symbolized by Neil's work as an environmental engineer. He regrets the middle class’s flight from small-town community, symbolized by the empty streets and cookie-cutter tract homes of suburbia. He’s saddened by the isolating effects of the Internet, symbolized by a few seconds of smartphone video footage and a too-short Skype conversation between a mother and her child. He weeps for our spiritual alienation and for our ineffectual churches, symbolized by Javier Bardem's quiet priest who only occasionally musters the courage to visit the poor and has little real comfort to offer them. And most of all he grieves for the decaying, sacred bonds of family, symbolized in so many ways in his last two films but most unambiguously by that vacant marriage bed. The problem is that Malick's aesthetic, which values beauty and symbols above all, just has no place for the abject and the literal, for the shit.

I want Malick to make a film about ugly people.

This note is at the very bottom of page three, after Neil has agreed to marry Marina but before her affair. I had hoped To the Wonder would be Malick’s marriage film or his sex film, but it’s neither, because Neil and Marina aren’t people. Not really. They’re beautiful avatars—models in an impressionistic fashion show far removed from the mundane realities of relationships. Like the “dance” between Neil and Jane in her pasture, Malick represents the most intimate moments between Neil and Marina in what are quickly becoming clichéd (if, admittedly, stunning) images: steadicam shots of them giggling, jumping on the bed, and play-wrestling in sun-washed, sheer-curtained bedrooms, and that ubiquitous shot of a beautiful woman moving away from the camera and then turning back toward it with a direct glance and a longing smile. The closest Malick comes to showing their sex life is a bit of chaste dryhumping with Affleck still in his jeans. We can only assume one or both of these characters have had an orgasm at some point in their relationship. That sort of thing is out of bounds for Malick. The messy mechanics of sex, like the manure, would soil the fragrance-commercial glamour of his images.

I’m ambivalent about Malick, in general, but I quite like The Tree of Life, in part because it wears its nostalgia on its sleeve. The small town Texas scenes are romantic, sentimental, reaching, idealized, and fable-like, which is a perfect form of representation for childhood memories, and Malick’s shout out to Tarkovsky (the levitating mother) led me to assume this was by design, that he was working self-consciously in a particular tradition of cinematic memoir. To the Wonder actually amplifies that formal approach. For the sake of clarity I’ve been referring to the main characters by the names they’re given in the closing credits, but Neil, Marina, and Jane are representative to such an extent that they go unnamed in the film itself. To the Wonder, however, is also a contemporary story that is grounded, at least relative to Malick’s other films, in of-the-moment reality. Nearly every review I’ve read mentions Neil and Marina’s trips to the Sonic Drive-In (nostalgia as chain retail!), and Malick also recruits a number of locals for small speaking roles and takes his camera into poor communities. The film tries so hard to be about right now but Malick’s gauzy-nostalgia filter makes the place unrecognizable. We normal folk are all just poignant symbols, refracted through some mysterious subjectivity, awaiting illumination.

Page 2: Seriously? A magical black man?

Unless I missed something, there’s nothing in To the Wonder that identifies it as taking place in Oklahoma, specifically. When I referred to the carpenter as an ugly Southerner, it was shorthand for the people of red-state America, in general. Everyone in the film except Affleck, Kurylenko, and McAdams looks like my neighbors here in East Tennessee. Demographic data say we’re more likely to attend church, vote Republican, skip college, and be obese. I’m none of the above, but if I’m overly sensitive to how my part of the country is represented, it’s because locals can always sniff out inauthenticity. Malick is a Texas man, and I’m sure he has another good Texas film in him, but the clash of styles in To the Wonder—his crosscutting between ethereal, movie-star meditations on love and the realities of real Americans really struggling to be real—is condescending in ways that recall Forrest Gump and the recent critical dustup over Beasts of the Southern Wild.

To the Wonder even has a magical negro. Bardem’s priest is suffering a crisis of faith (symbolized by an early shot of him standing outside a ramshackle house, unable to find the courage to knock). Like some Scrooge-by-way-of-Bresson, he’s visited in the film by “regular people” who reflect various aspects of his turmoil. An elderly black man presses his hand against the church’s stained glass and spouts homespun wisdom along the lines of, “Feel that heat? That’s not just the sun there—that’s the Spirit!” A young man with Down’s Syndrome, speaking with “the faith of a child,” offers simple words of encouragement. A prisoner kneels before the priest and recoils angrily at the sunlight in his eyes. A poor woman knocks on the door of his home, invades his private sanctuary, and aggressively pours out her bitter troubles on him. The scenes play out like a Flannery O’Connor story devoid of wit and irony. Juxtaposed against the Hollywood glamour of the central plotlines and starving for social context, the images are grotesque portraits that lack the decency to be self-critical.

Page 3: Neil has a print of a renaissance painting on his wall?

Neil isn’t the artistic type. Or, at least I assume he isn’t. Malick has edited Affleck’s performance down to little more than a hardened stare into the distance, so it’s hard to know for sure. But a later shot in the film confirms that it’s Marina who cuts the print out of a book and tacks it to Neil’s bedroom wall. There are generous ways to read this little detail. Perhaps Marina, a dancer, simply craves a touch of beauty in her life and wants to share that beauty with the man she loves. Given my general irritation with To the Wonder by that point, though, it came off to me, instead, as a smug attempt by Malick—again, à la Tarkovsky—to insert himself into a particular and particularly grand artistic tradition. In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky writes at length about his use of Leonardo’s “Ginevra de' Benci” in Mirror, praising the portrait for its timelessness and inscrutability. The woman in the painting is both “impossibly beautiful” and “repulsive, fiendish”:

“It is impossible to find in her anything that we can definitely prefer, to single out any detail from the whole, to prefer any one, momentary impression to another, and make it our own, to achieve a balance in the way we look at the image presented to us. And so there opens up before us the possibility of interaction with infinity, for the great function of the artistic image is to be a kind of detector of infinity . . . towards which our reason and our feelings go soaring, with joyful, thrilling haste.

And there, finally, is the rub. Tarkovsky’s discussion of “Ginevra de' Benci” is part of his larger condemnation of symbolism. From three paragraphs later: “I am always sickened when an artist underpins his system of images with deliberate tendentiousness or ideology. I am against his allowing his methods to be discernable at all.” In the cinema, of course, an image is never just a symbol; it is always also the real thing(s) being photographed. Marina’s carpenter is also a particular man with a particular body and a particular face. The suburban tract houses are also particular objects with particular plastic qualities. Malick’s montage, however, actively negates this thing-ness, voiding images of their complexity. Tarkovsky’s “infinity” is nowhere to be found.

I began daydreaming about a Malick film about ugly people during a high-angle shot of Kurylenko curled up topless on the bedroom floor. Critiquing a filmmaker for shooting beautiful images of beautiful women is a fool’s errand, as is critiquing any artist for failing to be Leonardo, but that shot made me hyperconscious of just how dependent Malick has become on the superficial appearance of his actors. Kurylenko, a former lingerie model and Bond girl, emotes shame and disappointment as best she can, I suppose, but it’s finally little more than another simple image of an impossibly beautiful woman. (For the sake of argument, imagine a topless, middle-aged, overweight local being posed in the same position, and imagine how that shot might affect the popular discussion of Malick’s “poetic imagery.”) In an era of directors like Carlos Reygadas, Pedro Costa, and Bruno Dumont who have thrown off the distinction between the transcendent and the everyday, the beautiful and the abject, To the Wonder is profane in ways Malick never could have intended.

Yeah, this is the same complaint I have against Malick—except explained it in a way that didn’t sound like gibberish. I do like his films, however, and usually try to defend him by saying that he does show “emotional ugliness”—but it is a meek defense; I prefer films with real people. Andrea Arnold uses a similar editing technique in “Wuthering Heights” (to my eyes at least) but she shows the dirt and grime as well as the sunsets and flowers.
Along with Robert Koehler’s piece on Tree of Life, this is one of the best articulations of Malick’s shortcomings that I’ve read. I tend to be a detractor of his late work but I tend to cringe when I read negative criticism of it—philistine, dismissive, vague, and with little-to-no respect for what the man CAN do well. Not here. You pick real targets carefully and thoughtfully. Great “notes”, Mr. Hughes!
Wondering if the opening note’s echo of Greil Marcus’ famous “What is this shit?” intro to the review of Dylan’s Self-Portrait was intentional. That album actually turned out to be quite good; curious if To the Wonder has anything to offer against the grain. P.S. There is a Terrence Malick film about ugly southerners, it’s called Gummo.
Charles Baker’s character is like an angel of death (the way he looks physically + the skull, the spiderweb are symbols of death). Before she sleeps with him, he gave her a harp, an instrument played by angels in heaven (harp is known to be a symbol that connect earth and heaven). I think it’s all a metaphor. She doesn’t cheat on Neil literally. She sleeps with death. It’s a metaphor for her death.
rj, I’ve never read Marcus’ review or heard about that line, so any theft was purely coincidental! I’ve shoveled a lot of horse shit, believe me. That line was a genuine question.
PL, that is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Malick’s symbolism. Since writing this essay I’ve read Olaf Möller’s brief and surprisingly positive review in Film Comment, in which he describes To the Wonder as a portrait of Christian grace. That’s also a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Malick’s symbolism. But dipping again into my old church-going days (the first 30 years of my life), I’d have to say that if it’s a film about grace it’s about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called “cheap grace.” It’s grace in the most abstract and impotent sense. You can’t have “costly grace” without the shit, which is why I don’t hesitate in calling the film profane.
Malick film with ugly people = Reygadas film
This film looks like it will be quite draining to watch.. Leaving you not necessarily feeling ‘satisfied’ by the ending (by all means this is not ment as a bad thing) I just mean “to the wonder” looks like it requires you to constantly think, interperet and analyse. Similar to tree of life, which I still feel indifferent to.
I haven’t seen Tree of Life or To the Wonder but I plan to since I’m a fan of The Thin Red Line and The New World (Badlands is ok and Days of Heaven still haven’t seen). What I found most thrilling about the Malick films I’m a fan of is how he evokes the feeling of the sublime. Those sublime sequences can be intellectualized or they could just be felt with either one or both of those responses being acceptable ways to “read” the films and that is something refreshing to find in a contemporary Hollywood American filmmaker. Based on the reviews I’ve read regarding Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the methods he used to articulate the sublime seem to be becoming cliche. I’m worried about that and although I don’t plan on stopping my appreciation of his films simply because of that, I am disheartened when I see an artist’s potent visual signatures devolve into cliche gimmicks because they don’t continue experimenting with their imagery and push for new meanings and representations. Thank you for the article, Mr. Hughes.
Thanks for the kinds words, Danny. I led the essay with the “red dress” scene because it’s Malick at his best. You’re right — it’s hard to evoke the sublime with an image of two people standing in a field, especially within the mechanisms of a Hollywood production, but Malick has an uncanny eye and an unnatural talent for doing just that. The sublime resists interpretation, and those shots of McAdams are my favorite part of [i]To the Wonder[/i] because they remained (for me, at least) always in the closed, illogical realm of aesthetic experience. I stand by the comparison to a dance sequence. I’m still trying to understand how Malick’s montage works, though (or, in my case, fails to work in To the Wonder). The cutting is so quick and so personal (it’s wholly an expression of Malick’s taste, right?) that it trips each individual image. It’s not just that they’ve become Malick cliches or that the whole film has the gloss of a perfume ad or that there are too many shots of twirling women staring back at the camera; the images have been stripped of substance (or “thing-ness,” as I call it above) and become neutered. There’s a story (probably apocryphal) that, when asked if he was the father of New Age music, Brian Eno replied, “No. The problem with New Age music is that there’s no evil in it.” I’m tempted to say the same of Malick’s images.
I agree with you that the sublime resists interpretation and that’s what makes it intriguing and awe-inspiring to witness. Dissecting Malick’s montage sounds like it would make for an interesting video essay. However, his montage goes beyond a collection of visual images. He also uses poetic voice-overs and symphonic music to great effect which lends rapture to the imagery and incorporates a build-up that peaks at just the right time. Those additions go a long way towards giving them a heft you wouldn’t find in a product advertisement or a meaningless collection of shots. That’s an interesting and revealing quote by Eno. It makes me wonder if that’s what I enjoyed in The Thin Red Line and The New World, the sense of “evil” in them. There was a sense of danger in them that, based on what I’ve read about To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, the other films lack. Especially The Thin Red Line, which opens with a menacing crocodile as a stand-in for merciless but beautiful nature and from then on the scene is set to depict man’s capacity for cruelty amidst the search for the beautiful (re: from the march through the jungle to the battle scenes to the Japanese soldier’s face in the dirt to the woman leaving the soldier for another man all the way to the end when lives have been lost and men have been broken but yet they must soldier on).
This review was insightful and enjoyable. I agree with it on several points. However I would like to contend with the idea that the film needs more cow feces. While To The Wonder is admittedly lacking in earthy realism, in my opinion the stylistic choices made in the film are in themselves valid and effectively underscore the themes. A more gritty film would perhaps be a great film but a different film, and the hyper-romantic, gestural language of this film is in my opinion effective and powerful.
Ignatiy, would you care to point out for your readers one or two of the ways in which the main characters’ romantic relationship is ethereal or movie-starish? Having seen it twice, I’d have to admit it still looks suspiciously like a regular one observed in a very specific and original way.
@Brian: Ignatiy is not the author of this piece…
Darren, not one of the subjects you complained of as being a symbol was a symbol. Look at what you wrote. I don’t know if you knew this, but a symbol of a thing isn’t the same as the thing itself. Each was a plain example of the ‘shit’ you speak of. Or most. Quintana is, in fact, a character in the film who has his own problems and is not a tool being used by Malick to criticize the Church’s impotence.
Darren, I invite you to take a glance at Malick’s I.M.D.B. page. He’s made plenty of movies about ugly people.
Regarding your ‘magic negro’ complaint: Firstly, the term ‘magic negro’ is commonly reserved for characters who have more than forty seconds of screen time. More importantly though, I have in fact met a number of people like that, black and white, myself. They are, quite fortunately, a type of person that occurs not infrequently in our world. I find it very hard to believe you haven’t come across any of them.
Brian wrote: “Look at what you wrote. I don’t know if you knew this, but a symbol of a thing isn’t the same as the thing itself.” I wrote (in the essay): “In the cinema, of course, an image is never just a symbol; it is always also the real thing(s) being photographed.” So, yeah, I know that.
I think Hughes’ review is right. My opinion is thatI Malick’s movies are beautiful and useless. I like to watch them, I particularly love the music. But for any reasons I will think they will teach me anything about life. I enjoy them for the esthetic pleasure they give me. It seems instead Malick thinks he is teaching us a lesson. Funny, but let’s let him believe it.

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