To Malick’s “Wonder”

To the Wonder Malick

Terrence Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, is an apt follow-up to the enigmatic director’s 2011 classic, The Tree of Life. Both films are beautiful experiences of image and sound, deeply personal memoirs and heartfelt explorations of Christian faith.

To the Wonder has received substantially fewer enthusiastic reviews than Life, however. It’s not a film likely to show up on anyone’s “Greatest Films of all Time” list (as Life did for the late, great Roger Ebert). Why is that? I suspect it has to do with the fact that the film is not nearly as flashy and majestic as Life. There are no nebulae or dinosaurs. The world of Wonder is ho-hum by comparison. The Sonics and strip malls everywhere don’t help. And unlike all of Malick’s other films, it’s not a period piece or in any way exotic. Aside from a few dreamy sequences in France, Wonder is about American suburbia and its attendant quotidian struggles.

At least on the surface. Wonder, I think, is a far more substantial film than many assessments have pronounced it. Far from the “minor Malick” some have labeled it (or at best: “a B-side to The Tree of Life), Wonder is a characteristically ambitious, boundary-pushing film that builds upon the stylistic and thematic trajectories of its predecessors in the Malick oeuvre. I’ve now seen the film three times, and each viewing (as is the case with all of Malick’s meticulously assembled works of cinematic art) reveals new details, thoughts, emotions, epiphanies. Malick’s collaborators—especially production designer Jack Fisk—are all detail people, and it shows. Notice the extensive attention given to space, architecture, rooms, furniture, decor (yep, that’s a globe!) and appliances, for example. The geographies and materiality of everyday life are of great interest to Malick, likely in part because of his interests in Heideggerian phenomenology.

To the Wonder is challenging, to be sure. It’s not at all clear what the film is chiefly about. Love, perhaps? Marriage and parenting? Suffering? Dasein? In some areas, though, Wonder is more overt than Malick’s last few films have been. Take its treatment of Christian faith, for example. The film is imbued with it at every turn. Malick goes so far as to have a priest (Javier Bardem’s “Father Quintana”) as a central character, with his heartfelt homilies and prayers giving the film a liturgical directness that follows from but goes farther than even The Tree of Life.

Sadly, most critics have failed to adequately engage the Christian elements of the film, which are aplenty. Perhaps that’s because we have such a dearth of films like this, which earnestly—sans cynicism or irony—explore Christian faith without preaching or offering pat answers. (Though there are some out there).

In my review for Christianity Today, however, I try to engage the film on this level, making sense of Malick’s spiritual preoccupations in Wonder as well as his other five films. Below is an excerpt from my review, the entirety of which can be read here.

Though many of Malick’s characters struggle with faith and feel God to be distant (Mrs. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, Pocahontas in The New World, Sgt. Welsh in The Thin Red Line), most of them—through encounters with Love or with beauty—come back to a place of belief. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in To the Wonder, for example, remains thirsty for God the whole film, even in the midst of suffering. In a beautiful sequence Quintana quotes part of St. Patrick’s Lorica in a prayer that encapsulates the film’s underlying vision:

Teach us where to seek you. Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me.Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart. Thirsty. We thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of you. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.

Immediately prior to this prayer, Malick’s curious gaze lands on a nun, fully outfitted in habit, standing at a kitchen sink alone, washing silverware. We then see that it is actually Quintana looking at her, and we see that he is moved. In one image: the sacred and the mundane; work and worship; washing away the stain; the specter of Eden in a household chore. In a way the moment echoes the final voiceover of the soldiers leaving Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, looking out on the blood-soaked beaches and the baptismal wake of the departing boat: “Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind, the features of the same face?”

I suspect Malick’s answer is yes. Pain, struggle, loss, strife: it’s all an opportunity to see the face of God and to grow in faith. Just as nature was created to be resilient in the midst of difficulty (see the asteroid in The Tree of Life, or the palm shoot springing up from the bombed out beach in the final shot of The Thin Red Line), humans were created to press on and grow, emboldened by the grace, forgiveness and guiding Spirit of “the Love that loves us,” come what way.

If you’re interested and have some spare minutes, read the rest of my review here, as well as this one by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, and this piece which offers great insights into Malick’s creative process on the film. Also, if you have not yet seen the film on the big screen—and I highly suggest this format for viewing any Malick film—check this list of current theaters where the film can be found.

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  • http://twitter.com/anthonyparisi Anthony Parisi

    Great stuff –– I loved reading your CT review. It was quite a comfort after going through the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. What an incredibly depressing experience. I still can’t believe how poorly the film is being understood and the spiritual dimensions passed over or shrugged off.

    Here’s my piece on it if you’re interested. HBU is hoping to help spread the word! http://cinema.hbu.edu/terrence-malicks-to-the-wonder/

    • http://www.facebook.com/brett.mccracken Brett McCracken

      Thanks Anthony. I agree with how depressing the Rotten Tomatoes reviews are. I am not surprised in the least with the reception of “To the Wonder” among mainstream critics… at least not in a world where a film like Argo is crowned the “best picture” of a year… Anyway, I digress.

      Loved your piece on HBU’s website. This bit is particularly perceptive I think:

      “This may be a romantic filmmaker like Malick at his most self-critical, ashamed by his own failure to live up to the beauty his camera uncovers. The glory of the created order seems to testify against the ingratitude of his characters rather than lead them to transcendence.”

      I too felt the film to be a bit of Malick dealing quite personally with some of his own failures, showing how mundane and boring “the wonder” can be to us when we see it only conditionally (in pretty sunsets, medieval monasteries, Paris, etc) but not when we see it in the faces immediately in front of us… I feel like I can imagine some dinner conversations with Malick and his wife Alexandra when she lamented that “you’re so taken with the beauty that your camera sees… but what about me?!” Perhaps a film like “To the Wonder” is among other things Malick’s attempt to understand his own failings and triumphs in the area of romantic love. I think it’s pretty clear that Neil is meant to be his proxy, after all. I also found it interesting that the credits list Malick’s wife Alexandra as “Ambassador of Good Will.” I’d be very curious to know what kind of relationship they have.