Terrence Malick and Coffee Beans

I recently watched Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what to do with Malick’s films, with their signature whispered, poetic voice overs, shots of long grass swaying in the breeze, and the often beautiful, sometimes awkward use (or absence) of music. Malick’s films explore the deep questions of life in a way that respects the viewer enough to think for themselves. Sometimes frustrating, this being-kept-at-a-distance is usually balanced by being drawn inside the characters’ minds—even if the thoughts encountered there remain ethereal.

The Thin Red Line captivated me when I first saw it, and still does. I desperately desired the same for The Tree of Life, but it wasn’t the case. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to capture the depth and breadth of what he was aiming for in that film, but I appreciate the attempt.

To The Wonder explores themes of love and loss, commitment and isolation. The story revolves around the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Falling in love in France, Marina moves with her daughter to Neil’s native Oklahoma, but the dream-like state does not last. As the relationship breaks down, Neil rekindles his relationship with former love Jane (Rachel McAdams). Tangential to this main story, the film also follows the story of Father Quintana (played to perfection by Javier Bardem), a Roman Catholic priest in the same town (originally also from Europe) who struggles with a deep sense of alienation from the God who once seemed so close as he goes about his selfless, low-key (but nevertheless extraordinary) ministry to the local down-and-outers.

The low (and otherwise unorthodox) camera angles, the almost constant motion, and the drifting in and out of conversations and other important moments combine to create an almost voyeuristic feeling, remembered in glimpses with a sense of remoteness. The camera is almost magnetically attracted to Marina, prancing and twirling through most scenes. Her extraordinary womanly beauty, however, remains in tension with her childlike naiveté. Neil’s emotional complexity is masked by an often stony-faced Affleck, though there are glimpses. Father Quintana’s God-forsakeness is raw and compelling.

(Read Roger Ebert’s final ever review of the film here, for a more in-depth analysis.)

To The Wonder left me with the same sorts of feelings I encountered after watching The Tree of Life. I’m not sure precisely what to do with it, but I’m pretty sure that I’m happy I watched it.

In a way, watching Malick’s films, for me, are like smelling coffee beans in between testing perfumes (or eating sorbet between courses of a meal); they ‘cleanse the palate’ and reset to neutral. Though this may sound somewhat disparaging (essentially coming across as a negative rather than a positive experience), I don’t mean it that way. When so much of the ‘perfume’ of contemporary movie making is cheap and nasty, or when so many films are like a McDonald’s meal (rather than fine dining), a cleansing of the palate becomes an absolute necessity.

Though Malick’s films (especially of late) may not capture everything that Malick attempts with them, they reset to neutral the expectation that I have for all films. More than that, they allow me to wonder what is actually possible. Formulaic romantic comedies, mindless action films, and dramas with no sense of nuance or complexity are fine, but they are, for the most part, lazy.

So much more is possible through the wonderful medium of film, and Malick helps me find where the starting point for those possibilities might be.