There have been plenty of harsh words for Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.” There have also been many that are quick to offer the film praise. Read the reviews and look between the lines. Look closely and something interesting emerges. The film is indeed beautiful and worthy of the praise some have heaped on it, but precisely because of what the negative reviewers write.
“Let it roll over you.” That is a piece of advice often given to Malick’s films. It is good advice. Certainly you have to let Malick films lead you to ponder on the bigger things, but you have to first realize they tell a story. This has been problem number one with those critical of “To the Wonder.” They expect big things, but are given a story. They get big questions in the way of voiceovers, but the question in this movie seems too basic. “What is love?” may be a big question, but it does sound like a rather basic one to ask and “To the Wonder” is really only seeking to answer it. This is where the biggest problem in liking this film is and it is also its brilliance.
We live in an age where we often fail to get it right when it comes to love, particularly human love. This is the case with Neil and Marina, the names assigned to Malick’s primary couple. Besides the first few and last minutes of the film they get love wrong. They are by far the most distasteful and unlikeable couple Malick has ever given us and that includes the serial killers Kit and Holly in “Badlands.”
Let me clear on Neil and Marina as people before I continue. They are good people. Marina is a loving mother and exemplifies a beauty and grace common to Malick’s women. Neil is also the typical Malick male….a father or father figure, stoic, removed, but always with a sense of obligation and sometimes even kindness. Marina has one foot in heaven whereas both of Neil’s are planted firmly on the earth, except in those moments Marina pulls him into heaven. (In the world of Terrence Malick, you have to question if a man is ever capable of finding God without a woman.)
There is that other part of the story though. Critics who don’t like the character development of Marina and Neil point to it when they question why things don’t work out for them in the end frustrated that Malick never gives us a good reason. That is the point! There is no reason other than the inability to make decisions and acts of cowardice. Neil and Marina are good people, but they are a poor couple.
To rub this in Malick starts with a beautiful story. Neil is an engineer and Marina a dancer. They live and play in that most romantic and beautiful of places, Paris. They love and frolic. They visit markets and gardens. One can even tire of Paris, though. They are brought to Mont. Ste. Michel, which is one half mountain and one half church. They tread water and climb together to a great height. The images of baptism and ascension are unmistakable. In voiceover and imagery we are reminded they are the children of God benefiting from His good gifts of love and the creation He surrounds them with. All that is left now is the covenant of marriage to give full weight to these experiences.
They do get there, but in the process they mock their Creator and his gift and they turn the covenant into a ruin that is echoed by the ruin that is being brought to creation on the Great Plains of the United States where the two settle. (It is hard to watch this movie and not see it as taking a swipe at the Keystone pipeline.)
By the time Marina has her revelation at the end of the film, one can only wonder if Malick has a point to make. I think he does, but it is no longer so much about finding higher love, which is what critics who love the film want us to see. But in and of itself, that is simply not there. What Malick is driving at is nothing short of finding redemption. Neil and Marina had their chance. They blew it. Neil became practiced in coldness and Marina in infidelity. They could not be good to one another and to say that everything is made okay by finding the real meaning of some sort of higher love sells short the spiritual message of the film. The message we are told over and over by the priest in the film is forgiveness and redemption. This is attained, but a relationship still lies in ruins and to ignore the human cost of this ignores a resurrection that requires a cross and an absolution that requires penance.
There is a counterbalance to Marina and Neil. They are found in the persons of Jane and Father Quintana. To say they are ten times the people Marina and Neil are would be selling them short. Jane knows how to love in a human way. She has lost a child and reads the bible. She is a simple woman and has no need of a metropolis or a mountain to know the beauty of human love. Like Marina, she dances, but her dancing is for God alone as she twirls amidst the grasses of the prairie at the magic hour.
Father Quintana knows a spiritual love. He may search vainly for God, but he is practiced in the kindness God desires and every visit he makes to the dying, disabled, imprisoned, and addicted reveals this. The most touching moment in the movie is when Father Quintana recites the Breastplate of St. Patrick, not in a lofty church on a mountain rock, but amidst the ramshackle homes of Bartlesville Oklahoma. This is another part of the human story often ignored by critics. They are fascinated by the priest, but too often point to his doubts rather than the hope and faith he holds onto, a hope and faith Jane can also hold fast to, but for some reason Marina and Neil do not.
To attain heaven only is not good enough; one needs to walk on the earth. This is the other point Malick makes and one most tend to ignore. Some people need more help with it than others. Marina and Neil did. They were given a mountain and a metropolis to help with this. They were then called to leave the garden as all people who are to know marriage or perhaps any long term loving relationship (you can argue endlessly if this film is pro-marriage) and not merely romance are called to do. They were called to walk with everyday people and do average and good things. They could not. They failed to see the beauty of the earth at the sunset; they failed to head Father Quintana’s words about forgiveness. They failed to be there for those in need of kindness and they failed to see covenant about being anything other than dancing and lofty places. Mostly they failed to see God in the landscape and on the faces of others, especially of one another and this even after God had made it so apparent to them. And though they were the most pathetic of people, God loved them anyway. When Malick showed us this he showed us why asking what love is may be a basic one, but one that is worth asking and though this has led some to be critical of “To the Wonder,” it is also the film’s brilliance.