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Film Review: To The Wonder

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Terrence Malick's new film To The Wonder is dividing audiences with its unusual narrative style - is the film a beautiful meditation on love in it's many forms or is it a self-indulgent mess? Alistair Gardiner finds out... 

To The Wonder

Terrence Malick is not a filmmaker. His first two films Badlands and Days of Heaven, released in 1973 and 1978 respectively, left critics stunned and established him as potentially the most artistic cinematic voice of his generation. He then, however, disappeared and didn't make another film for twenty years. Since his return  he has set out to find new ways to tell a story on the silver screen. His more recent films offer little in terms of plot or dialogue; they are just images, music and beguiling voice overs. In this respect they can be seen as cinema in its purest form, rejecting the literary or theatrical staples that became cinematic norms. Indeed, the story of To The Wonder cannot be summarised, but in a nutshell one could simply say that it is a film about love.

As I said, Malick is not a filmmaker; he is a poet and philosopher whose medium happens to be cinema. His recent films have not been tied down by stories, rather they have each asked a different metaphysical question (but, like most philosophy, without necessarily giving an answer). The Thin Red Line was about the ethics of fighting in a war, The Tree of Life was about the search for God. To The Wonder attempts to define the most abstract and yet most domestically referred to of emotions: love.

Badlands and Days of Heaven felt like they belonged to the tradition of classical Hollywood cinema (albeit, they were unconventional addictions to that ilk). Recently though, Malick has abandoned the rules of cinematic grammer and chosen something of a different path. Some feel that decison was to his detriment and that his films lack coherence and drive. While these claims are not to be dismissed, I would like to argue that he has achieved something more profound.

To The Wonder feels like truly organic film-making. Malick shows us that nature is everything with constant cuts to the wildlife that surrounds his subjects. At times it is almost like watching an Attenborough documentary, even (perhaps especially) when the camera is pointed at the actors. There is almost no dialogue - one suspects that very little, if any of the film, was scripted - but this doesn’t detract from the narrative. In fact it is refreshing to watch a film in which nothing feels staged. Malick’s direction is not lazy; on the contrary  one gets the sense that he is more in tune with the world around him than perhaps any other living director. Nothing in his films is fabricated, he simply allows life to occur and finds the best way to capture and present it. The main reason for the actors' presence is the exploration of an over-arching question that Malick has constantly been addressing throughout his career: What is man’s place in this world?

This relates to another theme that runs throughout all his films: religion. In To The Wonder the audience is presented with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a man who is slowly losing his faith whilst he searches for God in what appears to be an increasingly loveless world. One technique that Malick often employs in order to tell his stories is placing his characters in a particular environment. The introduction of Father Quintana is a good example of this: he is shown wondering around a poverty stricken area, clearly there to spread the word of God and try to help some of the families. However, no preaching occurs  - there are no other people present in this sequence. The Father is alone, gripping his bible, aimlessly wondering around this wasteland, not sure what to do or where to go. In one short scene, Malick crafts the perfect image for a man clearly in the throes of doubt.

Indeed, religion is a good touchstone in talking about Malick’s films, which in many ways have become not unlike great stain glass windows. Surprisingly for art-film such as these there are very few long takes, in fact there are almost as many cuts as the average action movie. The pace, however, remains meticulously controlled and all these fragmented pieces come together to form a glorious whole.

Of course, this is difficult cinema. To The Wonder could accurately be described as a cultural endurance test, like being forced to walk very slowly through an art gallery; some will relish in the opportunity to slow down and allow the beauty to wash over them, others will be simply keen to get the hell out of there.

Terrence Malick has found a narrative form that is genuinely unique and he is showing no signs of compromising that vision. It’s fair to say that it’s an acquired taste, but while some sit blankly willing it to be over, others will find love here.

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