Walking in the Labyrinth of Malick’s Mind
If you have ever watched a Terrence Malick film then you know that one needs to be a little…patient to get through one. Not because he is a bad director, absolutely the opposite, but even for someone like me who tries so hard to watch closely and allow a director to deliver his or her message to an open-minded, attentive audience member, his films are just so much more abstract from most others made today. He does not have his characters dominate his narratives with dialogue, and sometimes even opts to cut their faces out of frame to draw attention to something a character is doing or interacting with. And Malick has always enjoyed including beautiful music in his films, allowing the images and sound to do most of the talking rather than characters. Who says we can trust what the characters say anyway? In lieu of overusing dialogue, we see characters interact with one another through passionate touches, long gazes, and frequently we see them walking in some sort of open space in nature – Malick loves nature (as evidenced by a beautiful montage I will include at the end of this post).
Malick also loves to contemplate aspects of human existence that interest him and there are certainly identifiable trends in terms of which aspects interest him the most throughout his filmography. Love and spirituality are are often at the forefront in Malick’s meditative narratives, and To the Wonder is no exception to this rule, in fact, it’s probably the film in which he most overtly explores these two topics. Through the different characters in the film, the audience is privy to Malick’s thoughts on the variety of perspectives on these topics, and in this film more than any of his others, we get deep into the minds and hearts of multiple characters.
Now, you may not love Ben Affleck, or you may think he’s great (one of the more polarizing actors I have come across personally). Regardless of your feelings towards him he is the perfect casting choice for Neil, a environmental inspector of sorts in a midwestern American town who struggles with making romantic commitments. He has two choices in the film, Jane (Rachel McAdams) or Marina (Olga Kurylenko) – not bad choices by any means. However, something holds him back, something stops him from fully committing, even after he has married Marina he is still not fully ‘with’ her, he’s not all there. His relationship with Jane seems more likely to succeed as the two are old friends, but even that one peters out. Despite the tender moments that Neil has with both Jane and Marina, ultimately the relationships lose their passion. What Malick is after here, is up for interpretation, so…interpret! Both McAdams and Kurylenko are superb in this film. Each is tormented with her own demons, hangups, and insecurities which are certainly not helped by their romantic involvement with Neil. Also, Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem acts as the conduit between the audience and Malick’s thoughts on how spirituality plays into the whole human existence puzzle. A religious man himself, Malick’s ideas are effective and intriguing though I believe another viewing of the film is in order for me to fully understand exactly how all these musings weave together – or maybe they don’t.
One certainly cannot (or should not) try to discuss a Malick film without considering its visual style. It just so happens that the master of contemporary cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won three consecutive Oscars for cinematography (Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant), has partnered with Malick for at least his last three films (The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups). A sort of match made in cinematic heaven, the two seem to be very much on the same page as the visual style of Lubezki, which often includes the use of wonderfully coordinated movement using wide-angle lenses, allows for intimate closeups, and beautiful sweeping shots of nature, which is right up Malick’s alley. For Malick’s purposes, Lubezki’s style is perfect. Malick wants the audience to get into the hearts and minds of his characters on an intimate level, much more intimately than most directors hope for anyway. Lubezki accentuates this as the camera pushes in on Affleck and Kurylenko, and Affleck and McAdams, accentuating the anxiety and indecision that often accompanies the more positive emotions when one is in love.
To conclude, though you may not be used to Malick’s unique style of filmmaking, it can easily be argued that his approach to storytelling, being far more abstract and intimate than any other filmmaker out there today, allows the audience to gain far more from his narratives than other films. If you’ll recall an earlier post regarding Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, this technique is also mentioned, and I believe I similarly gushed over the accessibility and emotional impact of the techniques these directors use. The afore mentioned approach to allow the music and images to tell the story allows the viewer to (at least partially) construct their own interpretation, rather than search for any sort of right answer. For me, this forces me into a deeper level of engagement with the story and the characters, and makes for a much more enjoyable and transcendent film watching experience. There is so much to discuss about the unique visual style of To the Wonder: the use of door and window frames, how light is used as a symbol, the choice of shooting so many scenes outside in nature, the list goes on. Whether you choose to explore these areas or not, the fact remains that To the Wonder is a beautiful film worth your time and then some.