I’ve been dumping on Terrence Malick‘s To The Wonder (Magnolia, 4.12) since catching it at last September’s Toronto Film Festival, but I want to emphasize something important. The trick is to see this thing without expecting it to act like a movie. Because it works if you submit to it like you would an art gallery experience. It’s passive and reflective like the sea on a windless day, but in a Moby-Dick sort of way: “The sea where each man, as in a mirror, finds himself.”
“Malick gives you so little to grapple with (at least in terms of a fleshed-out narrative and that thing we’ve all encountered from time to time called ‘speech’ or ‘talking’ or whatever form of oral communication you prefer) that” — like staring at paintings or sculptures in a museum — “it’s pretty much your responsibility to make something out of To The Wonder‘s 112 minutes,” I wrote on 9.11.12.
“It’s all about you taking a journey of your own devising in the same way we all take short little trips with this or that object d’art, whereever we might happen to find one. The film is mesmerizing to look at but mostly it just lies there. Well, no, it doesn’t ‘lie there’ but it just kind of swirls around and flakes out on its own dime. Run with it or don’t (and 97% of the people out there aren’t going to even watch this thing, much less take the journey) but ‘it’s up to you,’ as the Moody Blues once sang.
“To The Wonder doesn’t precisely fart in your face. It leads you rather to wonder what the air might be like if you’ve just cut one in a shopping mall and there’s someone right behind you, downwind. That’s obviously a gross and infantile thing to think about, but To The Wonder frees you to go into such realms if you want. It’s your deal, man. Be an adult or a child or a 12 year-old or a buffalo. Or a mosquito buzzing around a buffalo. Naah, that’s dull. Be a buffalo and sniff the air as Rachel McAdams walks by! You can go anywhere, be anything. Which is liberating in a sense, but if you can’t or won’t take the trip you’ll just get up and leave or take a nap or throw something at the screen. Or get up and leave and head for the nearest mall.
“I went with it. I wasn’t bored. Well, at least not for the first hour. I knew what I’d be getting into and I basically roamed around in my head as I was led and lulled along by Emmanuel Lubezki‘s images and as I contemplated the narcotized blankness coming out of Ben Affleck‘s ‘Neil’ character, who is more or less based on Malick. Or would be based on Malick if Malick had the balls to make a film about himself, which he doesn’t. If Malick had faced himself and made a film about his own solitude and obstinacy and persistence…wow! That would have been something.
“But Malick is a hider, a coward, a wuss. He used to be the guy who was up to something mystical and probing and mysterious. Now he tosses lettuce leaves in the air and leaves you to put them all into a bowl as you chop the celery and the carrots and the tomatoes and decide upon the dressing.
To The Wonder “is a wispy, ethereal thing composed of flaky intimations and whispers and Lubezki’s wondrous cinematography with maybe 20 or 25 lines of dialogue, if that. It’s basically The Tree of Life 2: Oklahoma Depression. It’s Malick sitting next to you and gently whispering in your ear, ‘You wanna leave? Go ahead. Go on, it’s okay, I don’t care…do what you want. But you can also stay.'”