The fragmented life in To the Wonder

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Terrence Malick’s most recent effort is more poetry than narration

By Will Ross

Now that The Tree of Life is well behind us, Terrence Malick’s rep as the most radical director in the mainstream seems to have held firm. That’s a difficult, even paradoxical label to live up to, but I doubt anyone expected the reclusive tastemaker to give a damn about living up to anything but himself, and his follow-up To the Wonder confirms that in abundance.

It is at once the most radical extension of his impressionistic style to date as well as his smallest, most restrained work, a film with near-total confidence in its formal power, largely foregoing dialogue and plotting in favour of narratively disconnected micro-vignettes of characters’ day-to-day lives.

What story there is centres largely on Marina (Olga Gurlyenko), a French mother and divorcee who meets Neil (Ben Affleck), an American environmental surveyor who brings her and her daughter back to America.

Neil is suspicious of strong emotions and commitment, and so his relationships are in flux; after a falling out with Marina, he falls in love with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a quieter rural woman. A subplot that follows a lonely and conflicted priest (Javier Bardem) is mostly-unrelated to Neil’s story on paper, but fits perfectly into the fabric of the film (this is, after all, the director who successfully interpolated the birth of the universe into a suburban coming-of-age story).

All the details of story and emotion — like one character’s feelings of suburban suppression, or a central breakup — are handled with extreme ellipsis; but though major events often occur off-screen, it’s never hard to understand what has happened. But the real emotional heavy lifting is all done by the gentle slashes of the cutting, Emmanuel Lubezki’s light-as-a-feather steadicam cinematography, and perhaps above all else the meticulously expressive sound design by Erik Aadahl.

It’s a risky strategy. Malick is, now more than ever, more poet than narrator, and poetry depends on a near-alchemic mix of abstractions that not all filmgoers are sensitive to. The film is an experience in immersive sensitivity, one that delivers us the characters’ fears and hopes and implacable inner demons. They move through a world that provides lush beauty and tragic degeneration by turn — sometimes both at once — and struggle with how to find constancy through the unseen and oft-unfelt presence of a Christian god.

But the film’s psalmic mode is only one of the ways it interfaces with its themes of the search for constancy in a changing and impermanent life. Most important is Aadahl’s aforementioned sound design, which is surprisingly quiet in To the Wonder. If criticisms can be made of the uniform beauty of the film’s visuals, surely those must be tempered by the way the accompanying sound reconfigures those images.

Those reconfigurations, more than Malick’s famous use of voiceover or classical music, are the key to the film’s impressionistic power. Foreboding tones and sucked-out soundscapes over a beautiful image of a carnival allows us to see that ordinarily joyous vision of life in motion as the character does in that moment: as a harbinger of life’s frightening speed and unforeseeable fractiousness.

Such is Malick’s cautious optimism that when characters pass through these moments of doubt and dilemma, they can still turn their heads and see wonder.