To the Wonder

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Year: 2012
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem

★★★★★

Released less than two years after The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder acts as a companion piece, retaining the visual cues, cinematic poetry and overriding themes of love and faith. While it does not have the grandiosity, the soaring ambition of the former film, it is equally uncompromising, and those who found The Tree of Life intolerable will probably find this equally, if not more, so. The characters communicate through whispered voiceovers, sparse fragments of dialogue; Malick through images of sky, running water, lens flares, juxtapositions of light. At times it does seem overly familiar but To the Wonder is less nostalgic, more pessimistic and, at heart, coming from a different place altogether.

To the Wonder Olga Kurylenko

It begins in Paris, rendered gorgeously in the opening sunlit sequence; we are shown a couple on holiday, filming themselves on the Métro, strolling in the Jardin du Luxembourg, fixing a padlock to the Pont des Arts. They drive to Mont Saint-Michel and walk on an idyllic beach of dark, springy sand, a scene reminiscent of The Tree of Life’s paradise. They climb the steps and revel in the isolated beauty of the setting and the glory of their love. Back in Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) asks Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to move to Oklahoma to live with him, an invitation they joyously accept, but, once there, the tensions in their relationship are stretched to breaking point.

Marina is oppressed by her new environment, an outsider shackled by the walls and fences of nondescript houses, the vague, flat landscape and the faithlessness of the modern world. She is passionate, sensual, free-spirited; to those around her, merely unhinged. She is unable to cope with the failure of her love. Neil is an atheist, a modern American brute, handsome and physically strong but without an outlet for his passion. He works on construction sites, investigating the damage caused to the natural environment. He is complicit in the violence that is done to the earth.

Malick is idealistic in the philosophical sense and, with every shot, To the Wonder seems to hint at what lies beyond the range of our perception. ‘Life’s a dream’, says Anna (Romina Mondello), a minor character who appears in just a single scene, but the only one who comes across as truly liberated. Through the purest images and experiences, we intuitively sense the divine presence in the world, the love that exists within us and around us. The cinematography is designed to bring it out. However, modernity has distorted the phenomenal world and made it virtually impossible to believe in the noumenal. The film’s central motif is the veil, whether it consists of a pane of plastic in a chapel window, a pixelated image from a cheap video camera or a translucent sheet of white material across the eyes.

To the Wonder Ben Affleck Rachel McAdams

The film is littered with shots of dug earth and deserted, impoverished houses; we are shown herds of buffalo and constrained horses, domestic violence and callous sex.  These images pollute the purity of the light that Malick makes his ultimate subject. Love, more often than not, is damaging, because it is impossible to truly believe in it; perhaps it would be better to say truly perceive it. Arguably, the most significant character is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest wracked with existential doubt and the pressures of an expanding parish in an increasingly deprived area. He knows he should perceive God all around him, but he has never been able to. ‘You shall love, whether you like it or not’, he commands. ‘Emotions, they come and go like clouds…Know each other in that love that never changes’. To do so takes a lifetime of struggle. Without faith, it is impossible and love can only destroy.

The film is put together like a series of memories, transient and impressionistic, concerned not so much with narrative as symbolic representation of significant events. Names are only revealed in the final credits and it is difficult to guess the order in which everything happens. It is flawed, certainly, occasionally frustrating, and promotes a worldview that will unfortunately put a lot of people off. But, like its predecessor, To the Wonder is bold, original and technically astonishing — idealism in cinematic form. Malick’s last two films have been fearless, groundbreaking works, attempts at pushing cinema beyond its limitations.

Rob Dickie

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The Way

Director: Emilio Estevez
Writer: Emilio Estevez
Year: 2010
Cast: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen

★☆☆☆☆

The Way is set on the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route, now used by travellers. It is evidently a personal film. Emilio Estevez directs his father Martin Sheen in the lead role, and also plays the part of his son. The film was inspired by Estevez’s own son’s journey down the Camino, taken with Martin Sheen. But enough about the family.

Very early in the film, the father, Thomas Avery (Sheen), gets a phone call informing him that his son has died while walking the Camino, and he travels to France to collect the body. Naturally, he decides to complete the journey on behalf of his son, presumably to discover the true meaning of what he has lost, and a world he has never previously desired to explore. It is a simple story, and the ending is known from the beginning.

Despite some beautiful shots, more should have been made of the scenery

Despite some beautiful shots, more should have been made of the scenery

It becomes apparent early into the journey that Thomas will not be travelling alone. He meets a jolly, cannabis-smoking Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a bitter Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger), and eventually an irritating Irish writer (James Nesbitt). Each have their own reasons for taking the walk and their own demons to overcome. They are an unlikely group of travellers, especially Thomas himself, who, for most of the film, looks like he would rather be somewhere else. He never seems to believe in it, which becomes a problem. It is difficult to care about his journey when his mind remains closed to it. It seems a duty, almost a chore.

His son (Estevez) also accompanies him. Thomas carries his ashes in a box, and sprinkles them gradually along the way. This works well. However, his son is also there is spirit and frequently appears in person. These visions always appear out of place, and are never anything other than comical. It is difficult to see why they are there.

Watching the film, you also get the feeling that Estevez doesn’t understand travelling. He has an impression of it. There are some unexpected experiences and brief glimpses of what these can mean, but the characters are tourists disguised as travellers and come across as insincere. One scene, in which Avery finds a hostel with everyone dining outside at a long table, is a good example. I don’t doubt that the event could take place, but watching it, I know it didn’t. Everything in that scene was forced. There are other examples. Even the identikit backpacks are difficult to believe.

There are good moments, such as when Thomas has to swim to retrieve his backpack, and when it is later stolen and subsequently returned. The former leads to nothing. The latter is better developed and provides some much needed sincerity, via a gypsy gathering.

The setting should have made up for the flaws to an extent, but, with a few exceptions, it didn’t. It lacks character, lacks threat. It comes across as very tourist board. The direction is bland and extremely safe, unable to bring the scenery (or the acting) to life. The soundtrack is also intrusive and often discordant.

The Way delivers the story it promises, but the execution is stale. It’s an emotional journey without emotion, exploring a wonderful setting without wonder. Due to its personal nature, it ultimately appears self-indulgent, offering mild comic relief but little else.

Rob Dickie

The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Year: 2011
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken

★★★★★

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?

The Tree of Life opens with this quotation from the Book of Job, set against a black screen. It is a big question, but this is a big film. It has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey for many reasons, most of them aesthetic. However, it is also reminiscent of its scope, its attempt to portray, if not to answer, the big questions. 2001 presents an unattainable truth, concealed in an alien object which is beyond our understanding. The Tree of Life presents a family.

It is a film where every shot is genuinely astonishing

It is a film where every shot is genuinely astonishing

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? That is a question at the heart of every family. Jack (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn) is a child, who, like all others, grows up to question the way of the world. He questions his father (Brad Pitt) for the way he has restricted his relationship with his mother (Jessica Chastain), for his forceful nature, for the way in which he and his brothers have been brought up. Pitt’s character is unsympathetic. It is clear he loves his children, but his love appears cruel and hard. His performance is all in the chin.

But the children do not know the way of the world, and it is up to the father to teach them. Who are they to question him, when all they have rests in what he has built? He has built it with his own hands, as he continually reminds us.

The mother is the antithesis of the father. She is love embodied. Considering the lack of dialogue she has to work with, Chastain gives a remarkable performance and Malick directs her superbly. The goodness and purity of the character shines through every look, every gesture, whether she is laughing or in tears. She is believable in every sense, as a mother, as the ultimate mother, as an Eve. At one point she floats in the air beneath a tree, and we believe her.

The struggle in the film is between the father and the mother, or the way of nature and the way of grace, as Malick puts it. In other words, between what we are given in life (by God) to work with, and the ideal that we yearn to be. The allegory is deceptively simple. All the wonders of eternity, all the grace and cruelty of God, presented in the image of a family which is unquestionably real.

It sounds too good to be true and perhaps is. The main problem is one of balance. At times, the middle section of the film does not seem to progress, and, despite beautiful imagery and strong performances, it cannot quite live up to the spectacular frame. Penn’s older Jack is underused, despite the importance of his role, and the omission of the dramatic catalyst of the narrative means the audience must take a leap of faith to entirely connect with the ending. It is evidently a personal film, which may explain Malick’s aversion to conventional narrative techniques, even at the expense of synthesis.

It is, at the same time, a very easy and very difficult film to criticise. It is not flawless, yet feels like it should be. It must be said that the opening and closing scenes are some of the most beautiful that exist in cinema. It is a spiritual experience and one that won’t be replicated for a long time. Just go and see it.

Rob Dickie