Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” (2012)

This article is excerpted from “The Freefall Triptych”, Part 4 of our video essay series on Terrence Malick

Notable Festivals: Venice

Over the course of a filmmaking career that has spanned nearly four decades but only produced five feature films, director Terrence Malick has become more of a myth than a man.  In the eyes of the filmgoing public, he has unwittingly cultivated the aura of a mysterious recluse, emerging from his hiding place every half decade with another long-awaited film that he refuses to do any press or publicity for.  The release of 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE would signal a shift in Malick’s artistic approach, in that he was evidently willing to mine episodes from his own life for narrative exploitation.  This would be hailed by some as a grand revelation about the film’s enigmatic creator— a window into the soul of a man who had revealed so many secrets about cinema’s untold potential while absolutely refusing to yield anything personal about himself in the process.  What the film community could not anticipate was Malick’s imminent plans to blow up everything about the meticulous reputation he had spent a lifetime cultivating. Not only was he willing to draw creative inspiration from his own life, but he was also about to embark on a rapid-fire spurt of film shoots that would almost double his existing filmography.  Indeed, amidst all the buzz from THE TREE OF LIFE winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, there were whispers that Malick’s follow-up project was already in the can— secretly shot in Oklahoma with Ben Affleck as its lead.  It wasn’t long until rumor became fact; barely a year after THE TREE OF LIFE’s release, Malick dropped TO THE WONDER, a sweeping love story that he had shot in an exceedingly experimental fashion in late 2010.  Produced under the supervision of his regular partners, Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda, TO THE WONDER presented itself at the time as something of a companion piece to THE TREE OF LIFE— rendered in a similar visual style comprised of lyrical vignettes and fleeting snapshots, it seemed to counter the earlier film’s rapturous embrace of creation with a sobering meditation on the nature of decay and rot.  Several years later, it’s now apparent that TO THE WONDER is not so much part of a pair with THE TREE OF LIFE as it is the first chapter in a sprawling, semi-autobiographical trilogy about man’s moral reckoning with his flaws and the alienating effects of modern society.  

While TO THE WONDER’s surface plot is heavily fictionalized, the broad strokes of its story nevertheless offer us our most intimate look yet at the enigmatic director’s interior life.  Ben Affleck stars as Neil, an American caught up in a whirlwind romance with a Parisian woman named Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko. After a brief fling in Paris, he invites her, as well as her young daughter Tatiana, to come live in Oklahoma with him— an offer they gleefully accept.  At first, Marina and Tatiana revel in the wide open skies and the expansive fields, the pristinely sterile grocery stores, and the cozy confines of a brand new house in the exurbs. But soon, disillusionment and unhappiness sets in— a homesick Marina abandons Neil to return to Paris, and Neil finds love again with an old flame, a ranch hand named Jane, played by Rachel McAdams.  It’s only a matter of time until Marina contacts Neil, wanting to return to American and marry him so she can get a green card. Torn between his two loves, Neil has to choose. What follows is an emotionally-sprawling investigation into the mystery of love; a contemplative elegy for restless hearts that draws from Malick’s own experiences in the twenty-year hiatus he took between DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) and THE THIN RED LINE (1998).  After leaving Hollywood for Paris in the late 1970’s, Malick began a relationship with a woman named Michele Morette.  Following their marriage in 1985, the couple traded the City Of Lights for the pastoral tranquility of small town Oklahoma.  Malick and Morette would ultimately divorce in 1998, whereupon he quickly remarried a woman named Alexandra Wallace, the former high school sweetheart he affectionately called “Ecky”.  It’s easy to draw the parallels between TO THE WONDER’s story and Malick’s own, but in offering up a rare nugget of autobiographical detail, the filmmaker only prompts more questions— ironically deepening the air of mystery that already surrounds him.

The first full feature film of Malick’s to be set in the modern day, TO THE WONDER works from the barest sketch of a script, with Malick instead opting for the spontaneity and emotional truthfulness of improvisation.  More often than not, he would direct his cast to play out their emotions through their physicality, having forbidden them from speaking.  This results in a wonderfully kinetic approach to blocking and movement that better allows for Malick’s camera to organically react to the action in a given scene, imbuing TO THE WONDER with an unparalleled energy and vigor.  Affleck’s character serves as little more than a cypher, anchoring a story that, quite frankly, doesn’t really concern him.  Often shot from behind, Affleck projects a silent, stoic presence with roiling inner conflict that occasionally explodes into volatile physicality.  As a director himself, Affleck knows to trust Malick’s guidance in creating a courageous performance, even when it ostensibly leads towards his marginalization within his own film.  Indeed, TO THE WONDER’s dramatic sympathies and narrative interest instead lie with Kurylenko, McAdams, and Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, a priest caught up in his own crisis of faith and doubt.  Compassionate and deeply troubled by the moral and physical decay he finds surrounding him, Father Quintana only tangentially connects to the main plot, occasionally providing spiritual guidance to Neil and Marina as the pastor at their church.  He’s used to people looking to him for answers, but he’s increasingly finding he has none. Indeed, there are only questions, the most pressing being: how far can his flock stray before the shepherd loses his own way?

If doubt and uncertainty, rather than direct action, are the forces that drive TO THE WONDER’s restless story, than Kurylenko’s Marina and McAdams’ Jane stand as its true protagonists.  The youthful innocence that repeatedly sends Kurylenko frolicking through pastoral fields also belies a persistent melancholy and homesickness.  Her passion is volatile, swinging effortlessly from affection to hostility with the flick of a switch. As a Parisian who thrived in the hustle and bustle of a modern world-class city, she finds nothing but quiet isolation in the wide open spaces of Oklahoma, its endless open skies only amplifying the echo chamber of her doubts.  Simply put, she is a stranger in a strange land, and the love she has with Neil offers little in the way of comfort; the house they share is too cold and empty to truly be a home. By contrast, McAdams is much more steady in her emotional states, opting for a persistent, quiet grief stemming from the loss of a young daughter some years ago.  Her delicate frame betrays a profound toughness that seems to give Neil the psychological grounding he needs. She’s ready to start living her life again after an unimaginable personal loss, but unfortunately she’s chosen to live it with a man who isn’t fully present; whose heart still yearns for another woman on the other side of the world. TO THE WONDER follows these four restless souls as they wander in search of unattainable answers to questions they can’t quite articulate, yielding very little in the way of consequential plotting, but an abundance of profound insights into the transcendent, complicated and often-overwhelming experience of love and its unknowable mysteries.  

After two successful collaborations together on THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE, it’s fair to say to that Malick has found a kindred spirit in cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.  An unconventional shooting style such as Malick’s requires an intimate familiarity between director and camera-man, and the occasion of their third consecutive collaboration in TO THE WONDER gives both men the confidence to push said style to its extreme limits.  Shooting primarily on 35mm celluloid film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Malick and Lubezki use a combination of kinetic camera movement and anamorphic lenses to give a floating, ethereal flair to their fleeting images.  Far from a dispassionate, distant observer, Malick’s camera is instead an omniscient, restless presence capable of capturing the hidden emotions of its subjects and suffusing even the most trivial and everyday of interactions with a profound existential subtext.  Organically-motivated handheld and Steadicam moves continually push through the frame’s z-axis, further adding to Malick’s penetrating and inquisitive storytelling approach while a sprawling depth of field beckons the viewer with a veritable bounty of detail extending towards the horizon.  Lubezki once again proves himself a master of natural light, consistently backlighting his subjects against a lighting source like magic hour’s dim glow to add an ever-present veneer of romantic realism. Other compositional conceits like lens flares or evocative light patterns cast by window panes are a recurring source of artful imagery throughout, helping Malick and Lubezki to further capture the quiet spirituality of the natural world.  Autumnal tones define TO THE WONDER’s color palette, rendering the astonishing beauty of Oklahoma fields in dusky golds, oranges and reds that both counteract and complement the sterile beiges and browns of Neil and Marina’s lifeless suburban tract home.

TO THE WONDER’s striking 35mm photography would be notable enough on its own merits, but Malick also uses the film as an opportunity to experiment with the juxtaposition of visual textures afforded by a mixed media approach.  Sequences featuring McAdams were shot using the larger 65mm gauge, which blends rather effortlessly with the 35mm footage while boasting a higher resolution that suggests a practical, visceral hyper-reality counter to the comparatively-dreamy gauziness of Kurylenko’s scenes.  It’s also worth noting that the camera becomes substantially steadier whenever McAdams is on-screen, visually reinforcing the calming quality that her affections bring to Neil’s restless passion. Additionally, TO THE WONDER finds Malick incorporating digital photography for the first time— a sequence featuring Marina walking amidst the rain-slicked Parisian streets at night was shot with Red cameras to achieve a cosmopolitan sleekness as well as increased detail in a low light setting.  The film opens with chunky video footage shot on a specialized Japanese toy camera, instantly defying our expectations about how a “Malick film” is supposed to look.

While many collaborators have come and gone throughout Malick’s career, the one constant presence has been production designer Jack Fisk.  From his debut with BADLANDS (1976) and onwards, Malick has yet to embark on a theatrical feature without Fisk at his side.  Indeed, Fisk’s involvement has only grown more vital with each subsequent work, rooting himself in tandem with Malick as the director has increasingly shown an interest in exploring how people inhabit various spaces.  In the case of TO THE WONDER, Fisk works with Malick to create a rugged world filled with the heartache and yearning that consumes so much of its characters’ thoughts.  This is done primarily through the intentional sparseness of Neil and Marina’s home; the lack of furniture, art, or color creates something of an emotional homeless that echoes the hollow center of their relationship.  Devoid of anything that makes a house a home, this empty structure — one of dozens of identical structures on a treeless street — becomes a beige prison; a carpeted cage that keeps their passion from taking flight. As they wander their empty home, trying to avoid each other, they come to realize they are simply playing house— and the game stopped being fun quite some time ago.  Fisk and Malick also go to great lengths to create a strong visual contrast between pastoral Oklahoma and the bustling cityscape of Paris.  We hardly see any people walking around the streets of small town Bartlesville, save for the downtrodden populace that Father Quintana visits.  Malick’s Bartlesville, then, is a town of wide, empty streets; beautiful empty buildings; gorgeous skies devoid of air traffic. Here, the traffic jams are caused not by cars but by herds of grazing bison.  Paris, on the other hand, is a teeming utopia of busy pedestrians, honking vehicles, light pollution and centuries of soot-stained history. “We’ll always have Paris” is the cliche line, but in the case of Neil & Marina, it’s more than just a truthhood- it’s a painful embodiment of the ideal they’ll never attain as a couple.  Fisk, then, has the unenviable task of providing TO THE WONDER’s title with its meaning— often regarded as one of the Wonders Of the World, Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France stands as a looming presence in Neil and Marina’s relationship.  The site of a romantic day date seen early in the film, the stunning landmark comes to represent the zenith of their happiness; a paradise rendered in gorgeous medieval architecture that they were able to physically experience for only a fleeting moment and yet can never return to in a philosophical sense.  Fisk and Malick manage to conjure a mythical, celestial aura about the space— it seems to belong more to the realm of the mind than as a physical landmark within the real world that anybody can visit. In rendering Mont Saint-Michel in this way, Malick and Fisk raise one of TO THE WONDER’s most salient thematic inquiries: if you could experience Heaven, then how could you possibly return to a happy existence back on Earth?

The answer to that question is understandably elusive — impossible, even — but fortunately, we have the rapturous wonder of music to lessen the sting.  As such, music plays a huge role throughout TO THE WONDER.  In lieu of clear plot progression, music steps in to string Malick’s sequences and vignettes together with an emotional through-line.  Having come to Malick’s attention when one of his tracks was licensed for THE TREE OF LIFE, the then-twenty-six year-old composer Hanan Townshend was invited to create the score for TO THE WONDER.  Comprised mostly of brooding, atmospheric strings, Townshend’s score perfectly complements an aggressive selection of classical and religious source music from Malick’s personal collection.  The usage of Arvo Part’s “Fratres For Eight Cellos” has become somewhat of a staple amongst recent independent cinema of a certain mindset— that being of the dark and deadly serious variety. The appeal of Part’s work lies in the quiet majesty it imprints on whatever image it accompanies, an effect that TO THE WONDER employs to its advantage in helping the audience access the innermost restlessness and disquiet of its characters.

In a move that’s quite indicative of the importance that Malick places on the post-production process, TO THE WONDER credits no less than five editors.  The efforts of THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE’s Mark Yoshikawa join those of newcomers like AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, and Christopher Roldan.  The editing team’s approach builds upon the template that Malick has slowly cultivated through the decades, foregoing the construction of scenes in the conventional linear fashion in favor of elliptical snapshots that zero in on the narrative essence of the scene while suggesting the fleeting ephemerality of life itself.  To help them wrap their heads around his desired style, Malick provided his editors with copies of relevant literature and screened classic works from the French New Wave like Francois Truffaut’s JULES AND JIM (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1961).  While the experience of watching this approach unfold feels quite chaotic and free-form, the approach itself is actually exceedingly disciplined— oftentimes coming at the expense of the subjects contained within.  We’ve already covered TO THE WONDER’s cast of note, but few also know that THE TREE OF LIFE’s Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, and Michael Shannon all shot scenes for the film, only to find their characters ultimately deemed unnecessary to the central story as Malick ruthlessly worked his footage into coherent shape.  

Indeed, it becomes immediately evident that Malick intends on finding the purest form of his relatively newfound voice, paring the building blocks of cinema down to their most essential constituent parts and then re-engineering their construction entirely.  If “plot” can be thought of as the support structure of conventional narrative, Malick’s approach prefers to build with “theme” and “emotion”, ultimately achieving a final form that one could credibly call the visual equivalent of poetry. Much like poetry, Malick’s storytelling is predicated upon the art of suggestion, allowing the audience to fill in the connective tissue between scenes with their own unmanipulated emotions and experience.  This makes for an exceedingly personal and deeply-felt viewing experience that strikes to the heart of Malick’s polarizing status as an artist. The act of watching a Malick film is an active one, whereas many people simply prefer a passive watching experience that requires little in the way of emotional or intellectual investment. On top of that, the nature of his stories — especially those contained within his triptych of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and SONG TO SONG — prompts a high degree of self-reflection on the audience’s part, forcing them to reckon with their own faults and imperfections.  Naturally, many instinctively recoil at the suggestion of harsh self-evaluation, whereas others draw inspiration and focus from it. It wouldn’t be a surprise if there was a strong correlation between that dichotomy and the spread of Malick’s supporters and detractors.  

Six features into his career, Malick has cemented the cornerstones of his artistry into a relatively narrow set of thematic preoccupations.  While one might argue this should result in a predictable, repetitive filmography, the themes that appeal to Malick fortunately provide a lifetime’s worth of narrative and artistic possibilities.  The evolution of his particular aesthetic is driven by Malick’s never-ending philosophical pursuit of the answers to Big Questions: “why are we here?”… “what is my purpose?”… “who am I, really?”.  Malick’s restless camera reinforces the inquisitive nature of his storytelling, and the increasingly-abstract nature of his editing serves to drop the audience into the mindsets of his characters. By paring down dialogue scenes to their fragmented essence and supplying narrative meaning through ruminative, hushed voiceover, Malick crafts an omniscient — but not dispassionate — perspective of the world, allowing us to drift in and out of multiple streams of consciousness.  These voiceovers often have a regional twang to them, serving as further opportunity to convey character. TO THE WONDER distinguishes itself in this regard by leaning into the international nature of its plot, featuring subtitled voiceovers rendered in Marina’s native French, or Father Quintana’s reverent Spanish, in addition to the English monologues supplied by Neil and Jane.  The content of the voiceovers themselves varies only slightly from character to character, allowing Malick to hammer home on the film’s big ideas from a relatively comprehensive and unified standpoint while also reinforcing our psychological interconnectedness to one another as sons and daughters of creation.

While Malick’s cinematic explorations of spirituality have always been grounded in the syntax and iconography of the Judeo-Christian tradition, TO THE WONDER easily stands as not just his most overtly religious film, but as one of the most truly soulful experiences in recent memory.  The mention of “religious entertainment” normally calls to mind preachy, straight-to-video melodramas that induce only groans and jeering laughter from those outside the frenzied echo chamber of contemporary American Evangelicalism.  These cinematic “parables” wear their capitalistic ambitions on their sleeves, seeking only to impart cheap moral platitudes to the already-converted. Malick offers an alternative — and far-more intellectually satisfying — example of religion as a thematic device, framing his characters’ spiritual crises through the prism of Catholicism.  Serving as a kind of inverted mirror image to THE TREE OF LIFE’s rapture towards creation’s beauty, TO THE WONDER captures the Catholic guilt of lost innocence and the existential ache of creation’s imperfections— the latter of which is manifest quite viscerally in the disease, decay, addiction & deformity that Father Quintana repeatedly encounters.  Where THE TREE OF LIFE embraces faith, TO THE WONDER questions it; holds it at arm’s length and asks tough questions of it.  From Malick’s perspective, blind faith is not the same thing as true faith.  Indeed, the foundation of one’s very being must be tested before achieving true spiritual actualization— the cold world, reinforced quite neatly by the film’s melancholy autumnal backdrop, must first beat us down before we can truly appreciate its fleeting beauty.

All of Malick’s work to date is predicated upon this idea of “innocence lost”, to the extent that most of his film’s narratives begin with the committing of a cardinal sin that the protagonist must then spend the rest of the story answering for.  In BADLANDS, it was Holly and Kit’s lust for each other that caused them to shoot down her father and go on the run.  Pride drove DAYS OF HEAVEN’s Bill to kill his employer and escape to the Texas Panhandle.  Wrath was responsible for the wanton bloodshed and destruction throughout THE THIN RED LINE.  The conflict between the settlers and the Algonquin people of Virginia depicted in THE NEW WORLD was primarily caused by the settler’s greed.  The cardinal sin that drives TO THE WONDER is envy, manifest in the combative passion exhibited by Neil and Marina.  Insecure in the knowledge that the foundation of their relationship will never be as solid as they want it to be, they swing wildly between breathtaking romance and seething contempt for each other, pushing and pulling like an unstable star about to go supernova.  That they are surrounded by the natural world’s beauty is a constant, nagging reminder of their estrangement from it. They are imperfect beings in a perfect world, and their awareness of this fact causes an existential unmooring that corrupts the soul.

Architecture plays an important role towards this end, with Malick finding the dramatic in the mundane by gliding through space with his camera, propelled by curiosity.  If our lives are like a river — constantly flowing forward through time — then the architecture of both the natural and the built environment determine its course, guiding our movements as we pass through.  Coming from the soot-stained streets of Paris, Oklahoma might seem perfect to Marina. However, she gradually comes to know its corruption— the industrial decay; the health concerns; the pollution that is a direct byproduct of her idealized American lifestyle.  The cruel irony is that Paris offers no quarter either: the whimsical, vibrant Old World city where Neil and Marina first fell in love is not the alienating, overpopulated, and dirty Paris that Marina finds when she moves back. The manner in which Malick depicts these locations with his camera doesn’t necessarily change as the film unfolds— rather, its our perception of them that evolves, right alongside the characters.  This is one of TO THE WONDER’s artistic triumphs: Malick’s ultimate success in placing us so centrally within his characters’ internal consciousness that we unconsciously begin seeing the world as they do.  

TO THE WONDER is all the more remarkable considering it followed THE TREE OF LIFE only a year later, whereas Malick’s admirers typically have to go years between a new work.  The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion before going on to mixed reviews from critics and middling box office.  Many prominent critics thought Malick’s indulgence in an artsy, experimental aesthetic had reached its nadir— that a once-evocative and original voice had finally atrophied into incomprehension, pretentiousness, and self-parody.  This was not the case with Robert Ebert, who’s glowing review for TO THE WONDER would become his last; filed just mere days before his death in April of 2013 and published posthumously.  Ebert’s review would not just be a counter-argument to the film’s many detractors, but a rallying cry for the importance of Malick’s voice in contemporary cinema as well as a fitting eulogy for the celebrated critic himself.   There is perhaps no greater testament to TO THE WONDER’s artistic value and Ebert’s legacy than the man’s last published words:

“’Why must a film explain everything?  Why must every motivation be spelled out?  Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed?  Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like.  We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?”

TO THE WONDER is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Magnolia Pictures.


Written by: Terrence Malick

Produced by: Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda

Director Of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Production Designer: Jack Fisk

Edited by: AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa

Music by: Hanan Townshend