PRINT April 2013


Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes. Foreground: Bill (Richard Gere).

WILL To the Wonder—or TO THE WONDER, as the film’s end credits have it—finally dispel the aura of reverence that has settled over the cinema of Terrence Malick? The late creation of an artist can act as an alembic, concentrating and thereby heightening the qualities of his former work, Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) being only the most imposing example. And To the Wonder, like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) (both of which Malick has drawn from, particularly in 2011’s Tree of Life), distills all that is intolerable in its maker’s films. Ironically, To the Wonder is positioned as a departure, the first in Malick’s oeuvre, aside from a few uneasy sequences in The Tree of Life, to be set in the present day. That apartness—Terry Does Contemporary—serves to reveal that Malick’s stylistic traits, previously identified as auteurist signatures, appear too often tics and affectations. What Malick’s disciples praise as his ambition and sincerity increasingly registers as feigned naïveté, an untoward belief that his fervent romanticism can renew such exhausted tropes as a van Gogh field of sunflowers, a Milton tree of life, a Gauguin South Sea paradise. The unfortunate effect of To the Wonder is to cast a retrospective pall over the director’s work, to underscore the tendency in his earlier films to banal symbolism, manufactured rapture, and middlebrow aestheticism.

The Blakean afflatus long attributed to Malick, through which the mystic poet finds the cosmos in a grain of sand (or purling stream, dappled tree, twirling girl), has seen, over the past four decades, the hardscrabble materiality of Badlands (1973) replaced by the celestial nebulae of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, their titles already grasping for the ineffable “glory” that the director’s recent characters, hands or arms outstretched to embrace the bright firmament, often reach toward. (An evangelist of nature, Malick instructs us to “look at the glory around us” in The Tree of Life, and his camera soon fastens on a magnolia in full pinky bloom.) In that traversal, from the sere, sunbaked plains of his first feature to the aqueous tourist sites of Mont-Saint-Michel and Versailles in his latest, the voice-over—perhaps the defining feature of Malick’s cinema—has swollen from the thrilling folk ironies of Sissy Spacek’s and Linda Manz’s vernaculars in Badlands and Days of Heaven (1978), respectively, into sotto voce bombast, cloyingly reliant on such rhetorical forms as anaphora and aposiopesis. (Malickites extol or explain away the repetitive inarticulateness of the writer-director’s recent voice-overs as manifestations of awe before the inexpressible, the inadequacy of language when confronted with The Wonder.)

Malick’s editing has become increasingly fleet and jump-cut, his onrushing, handheld camera ever more unstable in its reframing, even as his films have bloated in length, burdened by spiritual rumination expressed in whispery entreaties and hushed exhortations to Mother Earth, God, absent lover, or hovering cloud. “O my friend of all those shining years!” a wife addresses the husband she is abandoning for another man in The Thin Red Line (1998). (As the oft-quoted and largely unparsable monologue that ends that film indicates, all things shine in Malick’s luminous universe; “Shine through us,” the tormented priest beseeches God in To the Wonder.) “Come, Spirit! Help us sing the story of our land,” exhorts Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) in The New World (2005), discovering toward the end of the film the domicile of that originating force: “Mother, now I know where you live.” The unnamed, saintly mother in The Tree of Life (Jessica Chastain, accoutered in Pre-Raphaelite tints of auburn and emerald) points to the radiant sky and tells her young son, “That’s where God lives,” the sound track promptly verifying the Lord’s heavenly address with a surging crescendo of Smetana’s Má Vlast. The inexorable inflation of Malick’s cinema extends to his musical scores, whose playlists have burgeoned, inclining to the Columbia Record Club canon and to such soft-core spiritualists as Giya Kancheli, John Tavener, and Henryk Górecki, whose “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” that early-1990s pop best seller, lends its lamentation to both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. Wagner and Mozart supply the sublime; Malick lavishes the latter’s Adagio from his Piano Concerto no. 23 on any moment in The New World he deems insufficiently splendid. Godard’s late cinema also tends to the Transcendental Jukebox approach, but the French director deploys rather than depends on its borrowed beauty.

Pocahontas is one of the many women in Malick’s cinema who beckon their men forward or back, into the sea or into their arms: “Come away!” the Powhatan princess charges John Smith (Colin Farrell), and later, “Come follow me.” “Come out. Come out where I am,” a soldier’s wife walking in the waves summons her man in The Thin Red Line. Early in To the Wonder, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Frenchwoman transposed from Paris to Oklahoman exurbia, beckons her (unnamed) boyfriend, a bemused Ben Affleck, by ceaselessly whirling and gamboling ahead of him through city streets and fields of grass, and apostrophizes a lonely cumulus: “What is this love that loves us? That comes from nowhere. From all around. The sky. You, cloud”—as the camera zooms in on the imbricated heart of a plant—“you love me, too.” Malick has frequently invoked an immersive, subsuming love in the world, more explicitly cast as divine, even Christian, with each new film, but Marina’s pantheistic paean, murmured in French over a montage of prettily flowing water, leaves one not awestruck but dumbfounded: When did Terrence Malick, perpetually associated by critics with the tradition of American transcendentalism, turn from Emerson and Thoreau to Thomas Kinkade, from the Over-Soul to the Over-Blown?

Terrence Malick, The New World, 2005, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 172 minutes. Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher).

“NEWBORN. I OPEN MY EYES,” the first lines in To the Wonder—perhaps quoting the benediction that begins Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), a film Malick surely knows—prepare us for the catchment of ecstatic imagery to follow. Though Sokurov’s narrator sees “nothing,” Malick’s Marina finds sights—high tide sending lacy rivulets over the dimpled sand at Mont-Saint-Michel, a Ferris wheel in the Tuileries ablaze with light—to match her subsequent claim: “I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. I fall into the flame.” (Even en français, her wispy monotone sounds suspiciously like the halting voice-over for Nicole Kidman’s Chanel ad.) Malick’s penchant for the pictorial was apparent from the outset. In Badlands, Martin Sheen makes a vengeful scarecrow, rifle slung across his shoulders, as he stands in a field under a fat Gouda moon, the evening sky hued rose and blue. By the time of Days of Heaven, shot by two legendary cinematographers, Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, Malick’s painterliness approached profligacy, every image composed for maximum loveliness and art-historical resonance: the Lewis Hine–influenced miserablism of the opening sequences in Chicago; the farmer’s lonesome house, looming out of Texas Panhandle grain fields, likely modeled on Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad, 1925, but isolated atop a hill, like the unattainable abode in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, 1948; the redundant gateway through which the migrant workers’ caravan passes and the anomalous gazebo, its curtains fluttering in the breeze; the crystal wine goblet, dropped in a river and resting on a rock, its tilted exquisiteness a matter of indifference to the fish that swims around it. For Malick’s detractors, the close-up of that chalice quickly qualified as the egregious measure of his aesthetic effects, though little could they have then foreseen the Joshua Light Show spectacle of Tree of Life’s “birth of the universe” sequence—both celebrated as a passionate refashioning of 2001’s Star Gate sequence and derided as psychedelic swagger. Nor could they have imagined that film’s kitsch-mystical coda, in which Sean Penn’s “architect” escapes the glass canyon of skyscrapers in which he is symbolically immured for a votive trip to the afterlife, where he wanders a vale of redemption (actually Goblin Valley, Utah) before encountering his reconstituted family on a beach that swarms with angels, revenants, and his ethereal mother, who tries to capture the sun in her hands the way she had earlier caught a butterfly. The designer piety of Bill Viola’s “spiritual” videos could be the model for this episode—Viola and Malick share a weakness for representing candlelight as numinous illumination and bodies plunging into water as signifiers of death and rebirth—or for the flashback recounting the passing of Private Witt’s mother in The Thin Red Line: In slow motion, the expiring woman reaches out to a little girl dressed in whitest lace and seraphically backlit by sunshine, as a harp on the sound track gentles the mother toward Elysium and immortality. In 1975, before he retreated into devout seclusion, Malick told an interviewer: “The movies have kept up a myth that suffering makes you deep. It inclines you to say deep things. . . . People who’ve suffered go around in movies with long, thoughtful faces, as though everything had caved in just yesterday.” Surveying Sean Penn’s perpetually anguished face in The Tree of Life—a sofa could get lost in his furrowed brow—one can only conclude that Malick lost sight of his own counsel.

How much the Mexican-born cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot Malick’s last three features, is responsible for their visual style is debatable; the films retain the director’s trademark rapturous nature imagery, his avidity for Steadicams through grass (kunai or prairie) and shots gliding over gleaming water, intense close-ups of beetles and bark, low-angled shots of people and shots that gaze up to sun streaming through a canopy of trees (the latter now a laughable axiom of international art cinema, though Malick, like the Tarkovsky who obviously influenced him—the mother levitating free of the earth in The Tree of Life probably derives from the Russian master—cannot be held accountable for his many acolytes). In the first part of To the Wonder, given the opportunity to make the French-language art film one suspects has always been his ambition, and deprived of his dependence on fastidious period detail, Malick delivers postcards and pleonasm, reducing Paris to stark-treed parks, a visit to the Louvre, and strolls by the Seine, where Marina and beau attach a love padlock to a picturesque pont. On a day trip to wintry Mont-Saint-Michel, Marina intones in voice-over, “We climbed the steps . . . ” (as we watch the two climb the steps), and after a close-up of the lovers’ hands clasping at each other against the sky, she dispenses the portentous words of the title, “. . . to the Wonder,” the swelling prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal preparing us for the moment when Marina presses her hand against a misty window. (The soulful trope gets repeated when Father Quintana [Javier Bardem], visiting prison, places his hand against a window to touch an inmate’s on the other side.) Malick clearly intends the motif of hands to connote—as it does in many of his films—a longing for spiritual convergence, but unlike similar images in the films of Bresson, the effect is fatuous; in Bresson, hands do things—pick pockets, sharpen a spoon, wield an ax, grease a highway—whereas in Malick they merely long to become transports of metaphor.

Still from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, 2011, 35 mm, 65 mm, and HD video, color, sound, 139 minutes. From left: Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), R. L. (Laramie Eppler), Steve (Tye Sheridan), Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), and Jack (Sean Penn).

When To the Wonder arrives in the New World—“A land so calm. Honest. Rich,” as Marina describes her Oklahoma home, getting three things wrong—Malick cannot resist the deliquescing light of the magic hour, every landscape arranging its constituents of field, grove, and sky into a Rothko triptych. The expected montages of cascades and trees, snowy fields and eddying streams, aim for the rhapsodic but achieve the bucolic. Increasingly codified and coercive, Malick’s rendering of nature sets out to elicit awe; when every shot of sun and water aspires to soul-trembling epiphany, the wonderment begins to feel mandatory—and not a little irritating when accompanied by the frolicking females Malick has become so fond of lately. Spacek’s bored schoolgirl in Badlands whiles away her time twirling her cheerleader’s baton, but ever since Malick sent Pocahontas skipping through the fields in The New World, his women—evermore presented in essentialist fashion, as so much “visionary” cinema, from Brakhage to Tarkovsky, has tended to—express their joy in existence by twirling their bodies through nature. (They also like to take flight on swings and in airplanes.) Having climbed to the Wonder and addressed a cloud, Marina spins and romps through the meadows, Malick’s fragmenting edits exaggerating her barefoot pirouettes and those of her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). When Marina whirls in happiness through a supermarket—a place twice described by her amazed child as “superclean,” as if the Monoprix back home were a bog—one fends off annoyance by imagining what the Sooner State natives make of the ballerina with the blue sponge mop.

Malick’s concern with dualities and their dissolution—e.g., the by now famous opposition of the ways of nature and grace in The Tree of Life; the question posed at the end of The Thin Red Line: “Darkness and light, strife and love, are they the workin’s of one mind? The features of the same face?”—becomes in To the Wonder a deliberation on the fusion of souls through love. In The Thin Red Line, Malick depicts this union with an aquatic simile: A soldier remembers making love to his wife—a blonde in white, awash in beatific light—in poetically faltering voice-over: “We . . . we together . . . one being . . . flow together . . . like water . . . till I can’t tell you from me.” Over an image of her in the bath, he murmurs, “I drink you . . . now . . . now.” (The unfortunate literalism is repeated a moment later, when he whispers, “You’re my light, my guide,” over a close-up of the moon.) “You flow through me like a river,” coos Pocahontas in The New World. In To the Wonder, Marina gushes, “Love makes us one. Two . . . one. I in you. You in me,” an invocation Malick probably derived from Ephesians and intended to reflect the divine unity of Emerson’s Over-Soul, but, as murmured by Marina, suggests a half-remembered lyric by the Captain & Tennille. Later, accompanied by Dvořák’s New World Symphony as she takes to a swing, Marina muses on the unifying nature of love: “There is always this invisible something that I feel so strongly which ties us so tightly together. I love this feeling even if it makes me cry sometimes.” (When the taciturn boyfriend finally speaks, one is grateful that the music all but drowns out his voice-over: “My sweet love. At last. My hope.”) Malick’s bid for metaphysical profundity, abetted by the many critics who fathom his films for intimations of Heidegger—the philosopher whom, along with Wittgenstein, the director once specialized in as a scholar—relies in To the Wonder on the ponderings of a priest who faces a crisis of faith. Encumbered by this cliché, Javier Bardem out-agonies Sean Penn, his face a mask of torment, his heart self-described as “hard” and “cold” as he ministers to, or hides from, the unfortunate in his parish. Where Marina sees the world as “an avalanche of tenderness,” the morose Quintana beholds nothing but “destruction. Failure. Ruin.” Like John Smith in The New World, who wants to “start over, exchange this false life for a true one,” Quintana yearns for an authentic self and suffers mightily in the search. In portraying the priest’s spiritual affliction as a dirge of unearned anguish, Malick disregards the observation he made at the outset of his career that “suffering can make you shallow and just the opposite of vulnerable, dense.” Hyperbole can also turn tragedy into its obverse, as when Malick transcribes Quintana’s desire for an all-embracing savior as a pileup of prepositions: “Christ be with me,” he prays. “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 the heart.” How did he miss “around”?

Terrence Malick, Badlands, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes. Holly (Sissy Spacek) and Kit (Martin Sheen).

Father Quintana’s flock, an assembly of the destitute and deformed, and the victims of (what might be) fracking, tenuously stand in for the social reality that has often been Malick’s strongest suit, despite his reputation as a mystic and philosophe, from the vivid evocation of ’50s America in Badlands through similar terrain in The Tree of Life. Otherwise, To the Wonder partakes of the nurtured vagueness that has increasingly invaded Malick’s cinema as it has become more abstract and “poetic,” dialogue replaced by voice-over, meanings spelled out and elaborated with startling explicitness—e.g., the mother’s many variations on “Help each other, love everyone” in The Tree of Life—even as crucial details of characters’ lives are left elusive or arbitrary, the director suppressing names and occupations to the avail of mythmaking. One can ignore as anachronism (and absurdity) Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917) being shown by the traveling circus in Days of Heaven, but how does Malick get away with the catalogue of evasions and solecisms in The Tree of Life? What exactly does Brad Pitt’s unnamed salaryman do that he is sent around the world to China and Germany on company business (after which his plant closes)? Why does Malick include the brief, disturbing sequence of an epileptic seizure, which causes us to question the Christian charity of the mother, whose admonition is to “help everyone”? Is Sean Penn an architect or an engineer? Why does the third son come and go, making it all the more difficult to ascertain which of the brothers dies, never mind how he dies? (More than one critic has mistaken the drowned boy for one of Pitt and Chastain’s.) And so on. Malickites tend to treat such questions as irrelevant or literalist, but their claims that To the Wonder is poetry, therefore exempt from the (reactionary) constraints of narrative arc and character development, seem like special pleading. That Malick creates from mass, often piecing together his films from immense amounts of footage, discarding characters and actors as he goes, has never been more apparent than in the cobbled quality of To the Wonder. Faced with Malick’s illogical narrative, one sometimes suspects that his publicity-shunning seclusion is in part a convenient retreat from inquiry. One would like to hear the director explain how the depressed, jobless Marina, back in Paris and bereft of daughter and boyfriend, inexplicably reappears in Oklahoma, suddenly being wed to the man with whom she had split. In her absence, her beau took up with her opposite, a blonde rancher played by Rachel McAdams, who ultimately ended their romantic idyll—another instance of the director’s many lost Edens—as suddenly as it had begun, because, or so she claims in voice-over as Arvo Pärt’s Fratres mounts on the sound track, “you made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.” A prayerful Christian, the blonde seems to represent Malick’s ideal of agape over Eros, but the indefinite interlude in which she appears, more Harlequin than Heideggerian, simply cannot withstand interpretation. And Malick apparently has something for Italians who drop from the sky—for instance, the flying circo in Days of Heaven with its unfunny buffoni—but whence appears Marina’s Italian friend, a mouthy spitfire who berates life in Oklahoma? “You’re a dreamer. You need to fly. Fly!” she shrieks at Marina in the most ludicrous sequence in Malick’s entire oeuvre, and follows her own counsel to “listen to your heart” by miming exactly that, before disappearing as quickly as she materialized. (Malick relies on a mime and a grinning clown in The Tree of Life to represent the marvels available to the innocent heart; in To the Wonder, Marina’s trio get their glee by capering in lampshades.)

Amid the cosmic miasma of afterlife angels and merciful dinosaurs, Malick’s cinema remains capable of hardtack poetry; in The Tree of Life’s acute portrait of the relationship between Brad Pitt’s aesthete-bully paterfamilias and his three sons, the haunting scene of boys cavorting in a toxic fog of DDT reminds us that Malick was once considered the bard of prelapsarian America. And sequences in The Thin Red Line approach the blasted-earth poetry of Kon Ichikawa’s great classic, Fires on the Plain (1959). But the director’s immense gift with actors (e.g., Spacek and Sheen in Badlands, the male ensemble of The Thin Red Line, Kilcher in The New World, Pitt and boys in The Tree of Life) vaporizes in the mists of To the Wonder. Kurylenko affects the tousled, puffy-lipped look of actresses in French “fuck ’n’ fight” cinema, while Affleck, instructed by the director to channel Gary Cooper’s flinty reticence, responds with affectless inscrutability as the man with no name and even less purpose; identified by Malick as a writer and named Neil in the credits, Affleck’s character lurks in the film as an artfully grizzled cipher. One rues ever hearing in Malick’s cinema, newly amorphous, a sound as precise as the Bressonian sonic close-up of Sheen’s handcuffs snapping shut in Badlands, or encountering an envoi as simple and touching as Linda Manz’s lighting out for the territory at the end of Days of Heaven. Malick now turns his every coda into visual peroration, complete with fan-baiting mysteries: the Greenaway maze in The New World; the enigmatic flora at the end of The Thin Red Line; the whirling color thingie, recently identified as a mid-’60s “Lumia composition” by transcendentalist light artist Thomas Wilfred, but appearing at open and close of The Tree of Life like a melting mandala. Debate has no doubt commenced over whether the closing sequence of To the Wonder is a flashback or flash-forward—we see Affleck’s character in the future with two children, but the main locale is Versailles, which suggests a return to the tourist setting of his and Marina’s first romance. Wherever she is, Marina remains overjoyed by nature, strolling through meadow and wood where she licks the branches of a tree, skipping and twirling, arms outspread, before a final image of Mont-Saint-Michel cues the end credits. The director’s apostates, force-fed on the wonder of it all, will instead find themselves imploring the director in a Malickian whisper: O Divine and Shining Creator, ça suffit!

Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder opens in New York and LA on April 12.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.