Judge Gordon Sullivan goes to The Wonder every time he's curious.
"I write on water what I dare not say."
It had to happen eventually. Returning to filmmaking after a double-decade absence, the work of Terrence Malick since The Thin Red Line has largely been hailed as momentous in every respect. Though individual features have their detractors (especially for The New World), it seemed like Malick could do no wrong once he stepped back behind the camera. All this praise culminated in Tree of Life, which found critics breaking out their thesauruses to find new ways to praise the film. Even those who didn't enjoy it found themselves compelled to say that something important was going on. That Malick followed up The Tree of Life in just two short years with To the Wonder made a backlash inevitable. Now the tables have turned, with some who enjoyed the film looking to downplay their enjoyment because To the Wonder is Malick's most opaque film yet. Thanks to To The Wonder (Blu-ray), fans and detractors alike can appreciate the beauty of Malick's film, even if it remains inscrutable.
Facts of the Case
The most elusive of Malick's films to date, To the Wonder follows Neil (Ben Affleck, Argo). First he meets and falls in love with Marina, bringing her from her home in Paris to Oklahoma. When that relationship fails (for reasons never made entirely clear), Neil reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams, Passion), a former flame. Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) struggles with reconciling a loving God with the difficulties of his parishioners.
To the Wonder is my favorite Malick film. The cynic might suggest that's because it's his shortest since returning to filmmaking in 1998 (which it is, at 112 minutes) or because it features two central performances by the radiant Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams (which is also true). However, my reasons are a bit less cynical.
The reason that To the Wonder is my favorite Malick film is because it feels like the first time Malick has set out to make "a Malick film." Most of his other films have their genesis in some external event: the Starkweather case, the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, etc. There were obvious biographical elements in Tree of Life, but they were subsumed under a narrative that seemed to encompass the birth (and possible death?) of the world. In contrast, To the Wonder feels more personal. Of course, part of that is that there are significant biographical elements—the Parisian passion, the rekindled high-school romance—from Malick's own life. For an artist who has been so reclusive, this kind of opening up is especially enlightening.
More importantly, even if you don't care about Malick's biography, To the Wonder seems to represent his full embrace of his style—no longer does he just "use" a voiceover, but instead seems to reflect on that usage self-consciously. It's not just the voiceover, but all his cinematic techniques. Here they received a probing treatment, as if Malick is testing his tools to see if they will be found wanting. We can hear this in the use of voiceover most easily. I have a friend who claims Badlands is Malick's best film because it's his most effective use of voiceover. I disagree, and would instead nominate To the Wonder, as here Malick broadens his palette, offering us voiceovers from multiple characters and in multiple languages. I'm not sure why hearing Kurylenko in French and Bardem in Spanish makes the narration so much more affecting, but it does.
Then, of course, there are the locations. Malick captures the dark mystery of Paris like few directors can; his Paris is almost noir-like in its intensity—and then there's Oklahoma. I have a colleague who claims you can't appreciate To the Wonder unless you've lived in OK, and I'm half-tempted to believe him. Certainly unless you've at least visited it's impossible to believe that the light that Malick captures isn't some trick. Shot after shot demonstrates the beauty of natural light. There's one moment in particular that stands out; it's a random tract house, isolated at the end of a lane. It's utterly unremarkable except for the fact that Malick captures it just as the sun is setting, and it's bathed in a warm, buttery glow that's magical. Even if you don't care about the characters and can't stand the voiceover, To the Wonder is worth watching simply for the beautiful shots.
Unsurprisingly, To the Wonder (Blu-ray) looks amazing. The cinematography is at least half of the success of any Malick film, and To the Wonder is no exception. From the early shot on a train (using a digital camera that mimics 8mm effects) to later scenes shot on 65mm, everything in this 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is amazing. Detail is strong throughout, from close-ups on bodies to the tremendous depth-of-field that Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieve which allows viewers to count individual blades of grass. Colors are perfectly saturated, from the rich, golden hues of outdoor scenes to the subtle shades on Father Quintana's vestments. Black levels are deep and consistent, with no harsh digital artefacts ruining the image. Sound is just as important as image for Malick (which is why he includes an intertitle suggesting that the film be played loud), and this DTS-HD 5.1 track does not disappoint. The voiceover and dialogue are warm and enveloping, while environmental sounds are rich and dynamic, establishing atmosphere through the judicious use of the surrounds.
Extras include a series of featurettes totaling about 25 minutes that focus on typical behind-the-scenes material, interviews with the actors, the "dance" of the production, and the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where much of the film was shot. Together they give a bit of insight into the making of the film, though as usual Malick's voice is near-absent. We also get the film's theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To the Wonder was the last film that Roger Ebert officially reviewed before his death, and his review makes the point that the film is intentionally ignoring the conventions we expect of a film—and that's absolutely true. Those who come to To the Wonder looking for what the cover seems to promise—a typical drama of triangular relationships—will be sorely disappointed. There's very little characterization, even less plot, and not much for most viewers to hang onto here. To the Wonder asks a lot of viewers, and the rewards might be slight.
To the Wonder is the very definition of a divisive film; even fans of Malick's other films might find this one a step too far. In either case, To The Wonder (Blu-ray) will allow fans and detractors alike to experience the film with a pristine audiovisual presentation and some decent contextual extras.
I don't know what To the Wonder is, but it's not guilty.
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