Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Linear time doesn’t exist for the unnamed Melanesian tribe of the South Pacific that Private Witt find himself surrounded by. Free from the tyranny of the clock, their daily life unfolds to the rhythm of their environment. The islanders enjoy the freedom of their faculties and a profound spontaneity that blends work and play in what seems a pre-Modern paradise. To Witt, an AWOL American soldier in the Pacific Theater of World War II who has taken up in their midst, this must be Eden rediscovered. He happily adopts their way of life, awakening his hardened soldier’s heart. For a glimmering moment it seems as if he has escaped the cold, cruel, and dehumanizing technological killing field of the 20th century.
Quite rudely, a monstrous troop carrier ship appears on the horizon, pouring toxic black smoke into this verdant ecosystem, and contrasting the freedom of humanity with a ghastly mechanical prison: the apex of scientific rationality and so-called development. The present in its most grotesque form has arrived in this fleeting utopian exception to assert its horrific reign. And Private Witt soon learns that the course of history cannot be reversed. There is no escape from the horrors of the present. To flee is vain. He must be fodder for the war machine.
This sequence from Terrence Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line captures the central dilemmas of the director’s esoteric films, and echoed in later film like The New World. His works are philosophical meditations set to film, on the meaning of life and the promise of death, on embracing nature and its destruction by modern technology, and on the possibility of spontaneity, fulfillment, and love in a world that reduces living human beings to alienated atoms increasingly unable to relate to one another, to themselves, and to their environment in a meaningful way. His films embrace existential questions with a depth unparalleled in American cinema. Soliloquies drench his films’ soundtracks and pose the big questions bluntly. Malick’s pretentiousness is pure.
His new film To the Wonder, which opened in the US this month after premiering at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, is no exception. Ben Affleck, taciturn in the manner that Malick prefers (his Hollywood hunks are seen and rarely heard), plays Neil, an American testing the soil of the polluted American heartland with stoic disaffection. His romance with a Ukrainian woman living in Paris named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) soars to dreamlike heights only to crash down to reality time and again. Neil flees his failed tryst into the arms of an acquaintance from the past (Rachel McAddams), but his problems are not external to himself, and his failed relationships are doomed to repeat, leaving him seeking the past once more. Malick intertwines scenes of ecstatic warmth and oneness, the source of the film’s title, with scenes of disharmony, dissatisfaction, and even violence. A visual master, Malick captures luminous beauty as few directors can, and does not flinch in depicting its raw reality.
While To the Wonder is certainly of the "Divorced Director" genre, there is no bitterness in its magnanimous heart, but rather a spiritual embrace of life's totality. Moments of wonder are intertwined with depths of destitution, despair, and hopelessness. Complimenting this duo lost in the impossibility of love is Father Quintana (played by the excellent Javier Bardem) who is tormented by his own impossible relationship with a silent and unseen God. He wanders the depressed and polluted landscape at the heart of America alone and unsure why he’s doing it at all.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
And what Terrence Malick film would be complete without a dreamlike sequence of an ethereal woman running through a field, her limbs flailing unencumbered, her white clothing catching the wind and drinking in the sun? To the Wonder is no excpetion. These natural moments are always fleeting, but embody the central theme of all of Malick’s films: nostalgia for an irrevocable loss. Like Sean Penn’s Jack in The Tree of Life, Malick’s characters are doomed to wander an inhospitable world, haunted by the memories of their past. That’s where the “wonder” resides. But it’s all that Malick’s characters are allowed: fleeting, bittersweet instances.
This points to the central problem of the worlds Malick, a philosopher by training, creates. Guided by the morose tradition of Christian existentialism, the manic spiritualism of Soren Kierkegaard and the nostalgic anti-Modern theology of Martin Heidegger saturate Malick’s films with two centuries of Christian angst that sees nothing outside the relationship between individuals and themselves and their God, and has no faith in the capacities of humans to reverse the course of their damnation since the Fall except for faith.
Mystified by a world falling to shambles outside of their control, Malick’s characters are left to turn inward, searching vainly within themselves for answers, and failing that, doomed to address their impossible questions to an absent God. Malick’s humanity exists as a mass of confused individuals, uprooted from their historic communities, alienated from an environment they can’t seem to stop destroying, and utterly perplexed as to the nature of their existence in the universe, let alone how to bring about their desire for an authentic relationship with themselves, their fellow humans, and the world they inhabit. The unspoiled authenticity of days past, which Malick projects onto women, natives, and more excusably, children, seems lost forever, as disfigured human subjects grope in vain as powerless individuals for their lost pasts.
In short, Malick’s world lacks politics, the faith in human communities to solve their problems in concert. The existential trials of Malick’s characters are relegated to bourgeois melodrama by their disconnection from the social world around them. It’s only natural for them to turn to themselves, and ultimately to a fictitious God, because they lack the faith in each other. The crises of faith endemic projected on to these characters probably just reveals the director’s own. But the wonder is undeniable.