In Heaven, as it is on Earth: The Holy Places of To the Wonder
It’s been a full year since Terrence Malick’s newest opus, To the Wonder, premiered at Venice, and half a year since its limited American debut. Seemingly untethered by structure, though, like the cinema of Kubrick, Malick’s dreamy existential meditations adhere ardently to the three-act framework of theater, the film proved as divisive as ever. Even I had misgivings, having left the movie suffocated, not exalted, among two friends who felt similarly (one had walked out, then back in, then out again before the finale). We argued passionately on the drive home. With whom did we sympathize? Was the execution half-hearted? What, if anything, did To the Wonder have to say about relationships, about love? Roger Ebert, in his beautiful, final piece of film criticism, argued that To the Wonder attempted to reach beneath the surface to “find the soul in need.” My soul was heavy, exhausted, having strained for catharsis that never came, as if the movie refused to be consumed and discarded so easily. The film is a primer for itself, demanding to be revisited, reexamined, relived.
The second viewing is a dance. Relaxed, I give in to its trajectory. We are less clumsy. The film’s abrasive opening frames, digital, a whiplash of nature from the vantage of a speeding train, the landscape indecipherable, establishe the movie’s central binary of inside/outside. The outside is intimidating, but Malick and collaborating cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki place the viewer in a rare POV shot, one from a hand-held camera, operated by Neil (Ben Affleck), a man of science, a man of control. Behind his camera, he finds authority over the images he captures, but more importantly, he finds safety from the teeming chaos of nature, and from the volatile beauty of his lover, Marina (Olga Kurylenko). He hides.
“Newborn,” says Marina. “I open my eyes. I melt into the eternal night.” She has surrendered to the uncertainty of space, like water filling a cup (in contrast to Neil, a man of earth, who spends much of the film taking samples of soil), rejecting control, but this too is problematic. She waits for love to be thrust upon her, for Neil to demand that she spend her life with him in his Oklahoma home. She lacks definition, and because of this, the things she wants most of all slip away from her, or vice versa, as she eddies past, longing for something solid.
Oklahoma, one of those great American planes where you can say “God’s country” and actually mean it, further complicates the relationship of space, by conflating inside and outside, rendering human sphere and the sphere of nature almost indistinguishable. The earth, majestic and grand, the temple to which Malick has spent his career praying, is here literally poisonous, as Neil (as well as the viewer) attempts to discern causality between the samples he is collecting, and a seemingly pervasive sickness among the locals. “My garden died,” says one man. “I got stuff on my house. Kids acting strange.” Has nature been so polluted that it can no longer be looked toward for sustenance, for guidance?
There is a retreat to personal fields, to structures erected by humans designed to keep the outside out, but Neil and Marina’s house oozes toxicity as well. It is the shell of a home, empty (almost completely bare and aggressively bland), a product of mass production, and the couple struggles to fill the space with love. There are fleeting moments of sensual connection, but as Marina muses, one must always come down from these highs, back to the languid embrace of quotidian banality.
Then there is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem, giving a powerfully nuanced performance), whose proselytizing gives him no solace during his own times of need, searching for meaning in the empty church after morning sermons, or among the poverty stricken, the homeless, the sick. The church janitor describes his ecstatic relationship with God (“Hey! The power hits you, brother!”), and Quintana can only look on with longing, jealousy. In To the Wonder’s most heartbreaking moment, Quintana hides inside his home from a woman seeking his council, rather than face her, and his, desperation. How can these people look to me for answers, he seems to ask, when I myself so intensely need fulfillment? Where can God’s love be found?
Is it among the dazzling neon lights of corporate structure? An amusement park shines in the night sky, its colors bold, effervescent, and wild. The sign for a Sonic (a fast food chain that brings its food outside, only to have you eat it in your car) hums in a muted parking lot. Marina’s daughter even finds joy in the endless repetition of the supermarket isles, its cleanliness and illusion of choice. Perhaps the love is hidden in plain sight, and one needs only to step back to feel its presence. Buffalo graze in a field. Horses gallop together in fantastic waves. A flower blooms. There is still growth. There is still life. Quintana gives communion to the incarcerated, and for an instant, the cell is a holy place, and there is comfort for both men.
Whatever the moment may be, in whatever space it thrives, it cannot be obtained passively. No! Grace will not be handed to you. You must seek it out, no matter how difficult the journey, and the journey will be difficult. Open your eyes in the dark. Let them adjust. Sanctuary may be miles ahead, at the end of a long beach, but it exists, as tangible as you and me. Perhaps it’s right in front of you, on the other side of your computer screen, a quiet confirmation of the sublime. You may have passed it by already, but this is fine. It’s never too late to go back. It’s never too late. Go back.