It was nearly a month ago when I first watched Terrence Malick's most recent offering to the world of cinema, running out of my way to view what I knew would be an extraordinary work. Sure it does not stand close to his giant works like The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line, but even a lesser Malick films proves invigorating, challenging and deeply moving on a level most filmmakers can only obtain once in their careers, which span a set of films that are ten times the size of this art house favorite. Again, I watched it nearly a month ago and put a review on the back burner in light of the western marathon that I just completed. Usually there is a week or so window in which my waiting to write a review will prove detrimental to being able to provide anything close to a legitimate reflection and, it should be no surprise, that To the Wonder proved to be the major exception. Far more condensed than earlier Malick works, this film still manages to tackle some of the deepest questions of humanity, particularly focusing on the way one seeks meaning in a world that is noticeably and, to some degree, purposefully destructive. I was quite hesitant to get excited about this film because of the heavy backlash it seemed to be receiving from well-established critics who referred to it as being "Malick making a film that another person would make as an homage to Malick," and while I do agree that it gets much more introspective and wandering in its visual composition, one should remember that it has the very purposeful name of To the Wonder, suggesting a very real quest for something beyond and the Malick camera manages to really focus on this journey this time around, even making a decrepit building and a Sonic Drive-In take on ethereal and transcendental qualities. I would boldly posit that a lot of the hesitation and dismissal of this newest Malick film has something to do with its decidedly Christian narrative, which led to some self-imposed alienation by the generally liberal minded film critic. I myself am nothing close to Christian, indeed identifying with atheism as a worldview. Of course, that does not mean that I should dismiss something with such an earnest message and engagement. After all The Passion of Joan of Arc is a awe-inducing experience and it is about as Christian based as things come. Malick's To the Wonder is a work concerned with Christian Existentialism and one well worth encountering regardless of the religious framework with which one identifies, because well done cinema transcends all presuppositions.
As is the case with many Malick films there is no one central figure, but, instead; a group of individuals who sort of interact between one another, at times in the same literal space, but always in the same metaphysical one. The first major characters are the romantically involved couple of Neil (Ben Affleck) whose recent trip to Europe has afforded him an opportunity to meet Marina (Olga Kurylenko) a recent divorcee who is worried about how her falling in love with Neil will affect her ability to raise her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). Even though this is a factor, the two fall wildly for each other on the stormy hills and rocky beaches of Normandy only to move back to rural America, where both Marina and Tatiana experience decided culture shock. This change of scenery is only heightened by the diminishing feelings of romance between Marina and Neil leading to Marina seeking help from a local Catholic priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who himself is going through a particular crisis of faith, admitting through the classic Malick voice over that he is uncertain about the feeling of God's presence. When Marina and Neil end things, she returns to France while Neil, after losing his job due to an environmental controversy, rekindles a relationship with a old fling named Jane (Rachel McAdams) and helps her rebuild her failing farm only to realize that the relationship will not work, proving a fortunate change as Marina returns to Oklahoma where she and Neil get married in a civil union. Meanwhile, Father Quintana fruitlessly continues his quest to find God's presence even navigating the most dire and troublesome of communities hoping to find beauty only to be told by others that it is real, most noticeably in a conversation he has with a church janitor about warmth of light and the presence of God's love. It is suggested that Quintana never truly finds what he is looking for much to his disappointment. Meanwhile, Marina takes her turn becoming indifferent in her relationship with Neil leading to her infidelity with a carpenter (Charles Baker) an engagement that Neil eventually discovers and is enraged by, initially leaving her on the side of the road, only to pick her up moments later. Neil seeks his own solace in Father Quintana who takes him on his trip to visit with the sick and poor, leading to Neil providing his own forgiveness towards Marina. Yet the two still separate and Marina is last shown returning to the grounds of Normandy as she catches a flickering light in the distance, perhaps that of the presence each character seems so desperately to seek.
I am not wholly familiar with the tenants of Christian existentialism, although I am aware that it is almost entirely credited to the work of Søren Kierkegaard and essentially argues that humans as creatures live a vacant and lacking life that is inherently meaningless until they are able to find a purpose, which to Christian existentialists must necessarily exist within the framework of a Christian ideology, one that is also very much hearkening back to an older, almost antiquated version of Christianity, that is not concerned with proselytizing, nor is it as derisive and condemning of those whose actions go against biblical decree. Instead it simply existed as a means to help people deal with their questions of suffering, loss and injustice as it relates to personal worth, as well as a larger societal picture. Malick's To the Wonder is very much a film about this Christian existentialist issue and I think it very much has its hand on the pulse of some of the issues that still exist within the philosophical framework. The clear example of the issue arises with Father Quintana who is ostensibly as respectable of an individual as a person can find, going out of his way to preach to those with nothing, while also engaging with people in a manner that suggests genuine human concern. Of course, he has committed to the ideas of Christianity, but his interpersonal feelings still seem to struggle with the larger questions of the presence of a figure. Ultimately, it asks the question about whether or not commitment to an ideal will prove enough to mellow the burning quest for certainty and verification of a higher purpose and meaning. Furthermore, the narrative extends beyond simply suggesting that understanding can come through a direct embracing of the Christian ideal, instead, arguing that an embracing of love in its most positive sense could also result in an outright transcendence of suffering, one that is based on forgiveness and compassion, or in actions that would be Christlike, without simultaneously being Christian. This furthers the issues of Christian existentialism by positing that the same sort of happiness could be obtained with a humanist worldview detached from God per se. Yet the most unusual moment in regards to Christian existentialism seems to come through Marina who is never actively seeking its presence, but, nonetheless, seems to find it in the closing moments of the film, arguably adding the very real possibility that the very higher power which Christian existentialism is grounded, transcends even its lofty expectations.
Key Scene: The last two shots of this film will likely stand as my favorite of the year. I was not fully moved by the film until that instant and everything came together perfectly and poetically.
I saw this in theaters and it may well prove to be less captivating on a smaller screen. Nonetheless, I highly suggest you seek it out upon release.