To the Wonder by Terrence Malick

To The Wonder by Terrence Malick

After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina (played by Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (played by Ben Affleck) come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (played by Rachel McAdams).

To the Wonder is the most Terrence Malick-y out of all the Terrence Malick films I have seen (The Thin Red LineTree of Life thus far). The tranquil characters run around playing with each other or stare angrily at each other to give the silent treatment. Every action, expression or object is an inner feeling, trying to evoke sense memories like a glossy choppy nonsensical Prada perfume commercial. For example, a couple racing through a grass field playing tag evokes one kind of feeling, whereas the same couple embraced looking at each other grimly by a living room window evokes another. People in real life do not behave this way but it doesn’t matter. It’s the overall sum of how everything feels.

The way To the Wonder is told makes it impossible to say anything about the cast or performances. The actors are mere colors being applied on a bigger canvas. Malick’s trademark whispering voice-overs are our only true source to what these characters are feeling.

To go off a tangent for a second, the use of voice-overs is usually frowned upon in screenwriting. Screenwriters are often snotty about this, but Terrence Malick applies them well. Yes, it’s an easy device to telegraph how a character is feeling at any point in the story and that can easily be cheapened. However, god is in the details and one should access thesubtextual use of voice-over in contrast to the supertext. The actors are all taciturn and physically performing their emotions to the point that the voice-over is the dialogue. It’s that combination of choices that creates the ephemeral feeling that we’re seeing inside the character’s souls. So I don’t have a problem with that at all.

The plot summary above is pretty sums up the entire story, but that’s not the point. Malick is solely interested in the human soul, not character or plot. It is a film about how people cyclically seek love and faith, lose them and have to find faith to believe in love again. Priorities shift, desires change, and people are ever-changing. I liked that core message. Malick himself seems to place more hope on faith. I connected more to the love part than the faith part.

I stayed with To the Wonder till around the 90-minute mark out of its 112-minute running time, and then I started to tune out from fatigue of having to feel so deeply into an empty canvas. The more you want to walk into Malick’s abstract world, the more experiential the film will be. However, the audience must take that very first step. So for that, it’s more appropriate to view this at home where you can rewind in case you drift out of the film.

In context to Malick’s filmography, I would have preferred something to happen in the third act for something to lift itself to somewhere else. Comparing it to his last film Tree of Life, his directorial voice seems to growing more raw and barebones. And for that, my favorite Terrence Malick film remains The Thin Red Line. For anyone who hasn’t seen Malick’s work, perhaps they can start with that one. To the Wonder is definitely not for everybody, but I recommend it to any Malick fans. 

Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols

A man gets intense apocalyptic nightmares. He hides this from his family and begins to build a shelter, but this begins to strain his relationship with his family and the community.Is he just plain crazy or is there something bad on the horizon?

Michael Shannon gives a subtle layered performance as Curtis LaForche. He communicates the difficulty of having an unexplainable problem. He feels something bad is about to happen. It’s nothing concrete but something about the world doesn’t seem right. He loves his wife, but doesn’t want to worry her. He communicates all this with his face.

Jessica Chastain is a believable onscreen wife and mother. A lot of cinematic mothers tend to be unconvincing and this is noteworthy. Most cinematic wives have too much makeup on, do not carry enough worry in their eyes and most importantly they perform without a familiarity  of their own spaces. When Jessica Chastain does household chores or embraces her own child, she does it with a muscle memory as if she performs these tasks daily. When Curtis and Samantha argue, it is a very realistic portray of how a married couple fights. This added a lot of believability to the story, especially when the central husband and wife relationship comes into strain. Actually yeah, I’d like a wife like Jessica Chastain in this movie.

You know how when you continually look at leaves being tossed in the wind or waves crashing upon a beach, you start to space out and ponder about the workings of the universe? The film’s cinematography captures that feeling exactly in scenes where Curtis looks at his environment around him with suspicion. In Take Shelter, nature is an uncertain place. Underlying beneath it’s beauty is something bigger behind that’s going on that we are unaware of. To say it’s beautiful cinematography is almost missing the point, it’s definitely the deepest, most communicative cinematography I have seen this year.

This is Jeff Nichols’ second film. He has mastered the art of slow-boiled tension, which is a storytelling technique that is on the brink of extinction in an age where the short-attention gene is on the rise. I also love how the story moves forward and how fresh story points are revealed. There’s not much Basil Exposition, they just jump right into it and at times the audiences is set to figure out the context. David Wingo’s soundtrack is ambiguous and embodies a creeping sensation of foreboding. And along with the story, this ambiguity uneases the audience. After all, do we want Curtis to be crazy and committed to an asylum? Or do we want to see something big bad happen?

The story has a strong grasp of how the audience feels about the story in any given moment. It knows when to slow down and does so, particularly in the shelter sequence where Samantha and Curtis discuss whether to exit the shelter. You want and dread the conclusion at the same time. The ending is truly something. It’s an glorious epic finale.

And I have to say, I was very pleased to be manipulated this way.