Love That Loves Us: The Two Loves of To the Wonder

note: Here there be spoilers

By now it is cliche to label a Terrence Malick film a “visual poem,” but in the case of To The Wonder, that is what it is. Malick’s cinematic eye defers to poetry more strongly than that of cinema and though I’m certain that he doesn’t regard himself as a poet, he has taken the raw matter of his sensorium and fashioned it into something that resides beyond both poetry and cinema.

From Badlands to To The Wonder, Malick demonstrates a willingness to build as fast as he deconstructs, and forge anew a tone poem of meditation and spirituality. He seems to aim toward silent film, and To The Wonder, it seems, is his most silent. With nary a word spoken between its principal characters, the moody film elicits calm through a Malickian cathedral of hushed voices and barely-there melancholy music. Wisps of French, Italian and Spanish (and even a midwestern Oklahoma vernacular that seems like another language) whirl through the immaculate sound design like the wind that blows through Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Jane’s  (Rachel McAdams) luscious long hair.

*  *  *  *  *

In To The Wonder’s opening shots, Malick introduces us to Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (though they do not utter these names in the film). They stand on a Parisian train and over the scattershot amateur film footage, we hear Marina’s first words uttered in the film.

For the better part of the film, To The Wonder belongs to her. We are transported through her experience and perception:

      I open my eyes. 
      I melt. 
      Into the eternal night.
      A spark.
      I fall into the flame.

Hanan Townshend’s luscious yet subtle score begins to stir (and fittingly it is the exemplary opening track of To the Wonder’s official music soundtrack titled “Awareness”). We hear city sounds after they disembark. Statues and fountains abound, the lights of a ferris wheel reel and the whirling dervish that is Marina, a disembodied free spirit seeks to center herself in a life gone awry. She is, in a sense, the same spirit-filled beauty personified by Pocahontas in The New World.

     You brought me out of the shadows.

On a train, she flirts with Neil: transcendent, idealized love as fresh and fleeting as the scenic countryside flitting past the windows.

     You lifted me from the ground.
     Brought me back to life.

Even at the film’s outset, walking the cobblestoned streets of Paris, Marina strolls ahead of Neil. They are together, yet apart. There is an odd aloofness to Neil. He is weighed down to such a degree that we never are quite sure why Marina is attracted to him (or, later on, Jane). He carry his own invisible weight, one that isn’t as revealing as that of Marina or Jane. Without his story, his character resembles emotionally-wounded Jack (Sean Penn) in The Tree of Life.  We will never know why, and this is because it isn’t his story (and perhaps if we were to explore the backstory of Jack’s wife in The Tree of Life, her own air of discontentedness, we would be feeling the same vibes from her as we do of Marina).

The sensibility of Marina’s voiceover resembles Pocahontas. Captain John Smith also lifted her from some inexpressible void and, in her voice-overs, we are made aware that she too is brought back to life. This void isn’t explained because it is meant to represent the universal emptiness in all of us. That To The Wonder seems pervaded by inexplicable emptiness is no accident. Throughout the film, Neil and Marina wander empty houses. Jane also wanders her empty house and seemingly empty grasslands. Neil tromps through empty wastelands of shale, gravel, mud and sand. This is a film fraught with an overwhelming sense of emptiness: empty love and empty spirituality (on behalf of Javier Bardem’s character, Father Quintana).

In France, Marina constantly fawns over Neil; her joyous bliss enhances the imminent crash when it all falls to splinters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The heights of the cathedral of St. Michel ascending ever higher “to the wonder” mirrors the transcendental apex of their union. Malick’s fleeting camera shots adhere to the flashback-as-memory mode (also effectively used in The Tree of Life).

Or perhaps it is all remnants of a dream?

What is she dreaming of? Marina asks herself in voiceover. How calm she is. In love. Forever at peace.

Marina seems detached, out-of-body, as if she cannot believe the person she sees was really her.  Neil and Marina’s car skims through the streets of Manche, France and along a boulevard toward Mont St. Michel. They ascend the stairs of St. Michel, surveying the tidelands surrounding them as a gentle rain falls.

We climbed the steps . . . 

Hands clasp together, a Malick motif of union. We see it between two Melanesians in The Thin Red Line; Smith and Pocahontas in The New World; the Guide and the NewBorn Soul in The Tree of Life and now Neil and Marina.

. . . to the Wonder.

Mont St. Michel is an illustration found in the Life magazine series of the 1950s, The World We Live In. The ensuing book was based on those serialized articles depicting the origin of life and the formation of the universe and planet Earth. It served as a reference source for the aborted Qasida film project, and, later The Tree of Life and The Voyage of Time. Since so much material was culled from this book, it is a distinct possibility that it also made the director first aware of this Mont St. Michel, tucked away and made use of in To The Wonder.

His Paris residency during  his second marriage to Michele Morrete (and his troubled relations with his rebellious stepdaughter, Alexandra) in 1985 to 1998 served as the autobiographical backbone to this film. There are, again, a sense of fast and fleeting memories. We do not tend to remember every explicit moment of our past explicitly, but some of it through snatches of images and sound. Impressions are more telling than dialogue. Marina is entranced by all she sees. The couple visit the Cluny Museum where Marina’s shadow approaches one of a the series of ‘Lady of the Unicorn’ tapestries (each are dedicated to the five senses). The three seen in the film are sight; tactile (which Marina seems to be touching); and the last which is known by its inscription, “A Mon Seul Desir.” (pictured below and from the film is the tapestry in the series representing “sight”).

There are flower petals; French architecture; passing faces on the boulevard. They stroll the mudflats as the tide begins to rush in, to cover and obscure and separate Mont St. Michel from the mainland.

It’s coming in, Marina observes; this rising tide perhaps a metaphor for that which also pours over their short-lived idealized love. Mont St. Michel serves as the last image of the film.

Love makes us one. 
Two . . .
I in you.
You in me.

It is Marina’s child, Tatiana (Tatiana Chilene) that sees through this facade of seeming fulfillment: “Why are you unhappy?” she asks her mother.

“I’m not.”

Neil’s proposes to bring them to America is a flash of  joy for Tatiana, though why he suddenly chooses to do this remains unclear. Uprooting a single mother and child is no light business.

*  *  *  *  *

(Marina VO) I never thought I’d be in love again. I’ll go wherever you go. 

In a city park, they happen upon a mother pushing her baby in a carriage. Marina asks Tatiana if she would ever want a younger sister some day.

Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances, No. 2″ lingers in the film’s soundtrack.

Marina tells Neal that if she left him because he didn’t want to marry her, then she never loved him to start with. She doesn’t expect anything to happen between them but “just to go a little of our way together.” This, in a sense, is misleading. Marina goes along, despite her wish to marry him, in a rush of blind faith.

By the ten minute mark, we are in Oklahoma.

*  *  *  *  *

In many ways, To the Wonder is Malick’s bleakest film despite a constant assault of overwhelming scenes of beauty and the luring promise of hope. Emmanuel Lubezki’s stellar cinematography is now down to an art form having keenly-honed his craft to suit the quirks of Malick’s visionary stealth. A jump cut from the cobblestones of a French village to yellowed Oklahoma grasslands is every bit as jarring as Pocahontas thrust into the loud tolling bells and crunching wheels of a horse carriage on an English street (in one scene, Marina seems out of place, lost, on the streets of Bartlesville, and even here as well, a horse-drawn carriage clatters past her). Like Pocahontas, Marina’s charm and innocence is never diminished no matter the setting she is thrust in. It is Paradise Lost that is evident in the entire of Malick’s body of work, from Badlands‘ Holly Surgis onward. Despite the forces at play around Marina, she remains true to herself, reacting as if she were a single-celled organism withdrawing into itself with every bit of stimulus. Her assessment of this America is one of naiveté. To her, this world seems “honest” and “rich” despite its later scenes of spirit-killing poverty and sickness.

Neil and Marina seem to have reached a mutual state of bliss.Neil’s voiceover suggests that his bliss equals Marina’s: My sweet love, at last. My hope. His next voiceover, however, switches to the past tense: How I loved you.

If you love me, there’s nothing else I need, says Marina.

Neil speaks, and it is his voice that hardly speaks at all for the remainder of the film: “My sweet love . . .” They cavort under empty blue skies on seemingly empty tracts of land trussed with power lines and vacant houses. As he invokes through whispered voiceover his love for her, she, at one point, points with mouth agape at the setting sun. It is here she seems childlike, transfixed for the first time by the wonderment of a natural spectacle. With arms outstretched, she evokes Pocahontas, and it becomes apparent that in Malick’s cosmos, Marina and Pocahontas occupy the same person, the “One Big Self” of The Thin Red Line.

They are the vestiges of Emerson’s Universal Soul. They each define grace incarnate (along with Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) in The Tree of Life). Many critics complain that Malick risks parody, but I say he is simply riffing on his perceptive understanding of Heidegger’s World as Being and a synthesis of other meaningful texts. They are expressions of a single melody playing in Malick’s head. Variations on a theme.

It doesn’t take long before the “fish out of water” concept ingratiates itself. A Oklahoma mom with her fenced-in yard and children cavorting about, and a garden hose represents, somewhat bleakly, the attainment Marina wishes to reach: a wife and mother. Marina is left feeling out-of-place because she is already labeled a “single mom” despite living with noncommittal Neil.

The beautiful interplay between mother and daughter, and Neil’s attempts to genuinely ingratiate himself into their precious bond is heartbreaking. This maternal bond begins to disintegrate soon thereafter when Tatiana begins to question Neil’s sincerity toward her mother. As she intuits her mother’s unhappiness, so does she with Neal’s detachment. Firstly, in a supermarket (Marina and Tatiana remark on how incredibly clean the store is), where Tatiana asks Neil, “Are you going to marry her?” Neil doesn’t answer. Marina blocks her mouth from innocently asking anything further of Neil.

Neil’s principal occupation is that of a soil engineer. He inspects the soil for claims that it is causing illness among the locals (one tells Neal that his kids are “acting strange” and that “tar is coming through the cracks in the patio”). This perhaps explains why the homes are vacant. The same local tells Neil that  one house placed under escrow had the “buyers pull out.”

Amid the environmental wreckage of dipping oil derricks and yellow bulldozers razing the land, Neil’s aloofness has found a home at last. He is under constant surveillance by the locals wanting answers. He is under suspicion by construction bigwigs who feel he is looking for trouble. Malick has addressed environmental concerns before in his self-produced documentary, The Unforeseen. Here also, Malick directly addresses the destruction of his beloved homeland. The natural resources of Bartlesville, its soil and water, is polluted. Neil explains on his phone, that the water is contaminated by “lead, cadmium and surface oil.” It has reached the school.Marina’s concerns remain with Neil.What is this love that loves us?

That comes from nowhere?
From all around?
The sky.
You, cloud.
You love me, too.

Tatiana’s discontent continues to manifest itself. She tells Neil that she has no friends. Wandering the school grounds, alone, she seems out of kilter. Those acquaintances that she does meet are questionable at best (one girl with dyed red hair tells Tatiana, “My mom doesn’t care. My mom’s pretty cool.”) When Neil arrives to pick her up from school, she is elated to leave. He calls her “daughter.”Despite this, in a moment alone with her mother, she tells her that they “need to leave, both of us. There’s something missing.”

*  *  *  *  *

At the twenty-two minute mark, we hear the voice of Father Quintana, soberly played by Javier Bardem. He is spiritually-emptied, preaching to a half-empty church. He extols love’s virtues of love, an irony in itself since, being a person of faith, he presumably wouldn’t know the kind of love haunting Marina.He analogizes love as a “spring coming in from the earth” (an irony of comparison to the poisoned springs of the town making its residents sick).“There is love that is like a stream that can go dry when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love and has its source above.”These two kinds of love feed the separate relationships at work here:Marina and Neal = human loveFather Quintana & Christ = divine love

Marina searches and longs for human love. Quintana searches for and longs for divine love.

This film, ultimately follows their attainment of love: love that loves us, thank you.

*  *  *  *  *

“The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church, and give his life to her. He does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely. But there is a grace that comes in such a marriage . . .”

Marina reveals to Quintana of her marriage at the age of seventeen. Her husband “started running after other woman and he left us.” She gave birth to a child. He left for the Canary Islands.  She is told by priests that, “in the eyes of the church I’m still married to that man. They said I couldn’t have the sacraments.”

“I want to be a wife,” she tells Quintana (or possibly we now hear her own thoughts, for it is stated in a voiceover that occurs as Father Quintana stands outside a door.Father Quintana travels by foot, visiting the poor, afflicted and impoverished. He delivers sacraments to the condemned, and consolation for those in despair. Yet he questions the validity of his faith.As Neil is empty of true love, Quintana too is emptied of his spirituality. In one scene he stands outside the open door of a ramshackle home, and, after freeing the caught lead of a dog from the steps, he walks away. He listens to an unwed teenaged girl cradling a baby scared of her father and her own child, fatherless. The streets are as sick and tired as its people. Through them he strolls, haunted and forlorn, waiting for Christ to finally speak to him:Everywhere you’re present, and still I can’t see you. You’re within me. Around me, and I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found? My heart is cold. Hard.The domestic downward spiral continues to play out. Tatiana is on the outside looking in to an empty laundromat where Mariana and Neil do their laundry. At a public pool, she swims with Tatiana. Neil absently gazes at a woman in a bikini. Mariana watches.I write on water what I dare not say, she says in voiceover. Mariana is longing. Desirous. Absent of rapidly-dissipating affection. She is a tigress locked into a closet. In one scene she leaps around the empty room jawing her mouth like a beast. Neil acts as her tamer, shrouding her face with gauzy drapery.

I try to cradle you, to make you contain yourself.
An avalanche of tenderness.

Watching the rides of a seemingly-empty amusement park, Marina reflects of the “world so far away.”

She is a “ghost” reduced to “ashes.”

She fights with Neil while Tatiana hop-skotches the shadowed latticework of a window frame. Walking through the magic hour outskirts of their home, Neil explains to Tatiana that the “band of blue” in the sky is the “earth’s shadow in the atmosphere.”This is all lost on Tatiana who wants to return to Paris.

“Look at me not looking at you,” Tatiana tells her mother. “I don’t want to look at you.”She covers her face with her hands. To Neil she is even more blunt: “You think you’re my father, but you’re not.”

*  *  *  *  *

Father Quintana’s discontent is not lost on the eyes of his observant parishioners.

An elderly woman tells Father Quintana that she is “going to pray for you, so that you may receive the gift of joy.”

“Yes, because you’re so unhappy.”

An old timer cleaning the stained glass murals of the church:

(fading in)  .” . . because you don’t come out too much. Do you get lonely all the time, or most of the time when ain’t nobody around? So what you got to say about it? You gotta have a little more excitement, just like when me and you are around, and there ain’t nobody around.”

Then a cut into another phase of the conversation:

“It’s just HEY! The power hits you, brother. It always hits me. You can just say “hey, brother!” and it hits me. It hits me before I can get it out.”

Then he speaks in tongues. “See? The devil don’t know what I’m saying, and you won’t know and I won’t know.”

Placing his hand on the sunlit pane of the mural, he persuades Quintana to feel the “warmth of the spiritual light.”

“That’s spiritual. I’m feeling more than just natural light. Feelin’ the spiritual light, see? I can almost touch that light coming right from the sky.”Quintana, for the most part, is a sounding board, always there for the needs of others: How long will you hide yourself? Let me come to you. Let me not pretend. Pretend to feelings I don’t have. 

Listening to the complaints of  a drug addict and deaf woman, Quintana feels as trapped and helpless as the wasp he observes walking across a pane of glass.(preaching) “Man is in a revolt against God. The prophet Isaiah saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his people. In that broken marriage, we see the pattern of our world. We wish to live within the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself, and to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.“Marina to Neil: “My visa has expired. We need to face the facts.”Neil, who grovels in the earth by means of his profession, also does nothing. He buries his talent and is “unwilling to run the risk of failure.””If you’d ask me to stay,” Marina explains, “I would have.”

 *  *  *  *  *

The departure of Mariana and Tatiana back to France closes the first act of the film (it neatly falls into three acts: the initial courtship of Marina and Neil; the reuniting of Neal and Jane; the return of Marina to marry Neal) a little after the first half hour:
You thought we had forever, that time didn’t exist. 

Neil wanders his empty home.Discontent and worry from the locals: “. . . these guys live around here, they’re perfectly happy until somebody comes around asking questions, and it makes everybody nervous because this is where . . .”

“Ain’t this our property? Can’t we do what we want to do with it? I mean I tell my husband to get us out of here, but where we gonna’ go?”

“They got all these lawyers, these big time lawyers, and we can’t get no help. Even the dog is acting funny. “He flashbacks physical encounters with Marina.A snowy calm pervades the Oklahoma landscape in Marina’s absence.

A cut to black introduces Jane.

*  *  *  *  *

Neil’s introduction to Jane, a chidhood sweetheart acts opens the second act (shared with the Father Quintana’s spiritual struggle).  This counterbalance serves as the Janus-figure of two individuals, each struggling with a personal loss and seeking meaning in its aftermath.

Neil’s life intersects with Jane’s because he has to “look at some of these creeks and rivers” close to her ranch property. She is also acquainted with Neal’s sister whom she speaks with on occasion.”I’m going over to the Tall Grass Prairie now,” is his invitation for her to be with him.The sequences with Jane, presumably, may be remembered or imagined by Marina, who’s voice-over permeates the introduction of Jane.  Marina’s voiceover dominates the audio track of Neil and Jane’s brief courtship:You told me about her, the woman you met at the hospital.  Someone you’d known in your youth.

As Neil inquires about her ranch (“I’ve been there for some time,” she tells him), we learn that it is about to go into receivership because she has declared bankruptcy.As she opens up about her past relations with a college student, Neil observes (in voice-over) that “she hadn’t changed.” Wandering through the tall grasses, they happen upon a herd of placid buffalo.As Neil packs Marina’s belongings into a box, Jane reveals in voiceover [and the winds representing migrating swans at Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus” (start at 13.00 mark)]:

I had a child, a little girl, she died. My father, he said to read Romans. “All things work together for good.” He believes that . . . will you pray with me?

[Romans from the King James Bible says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”]

Neil, however, cannot accommodate her: “I had no faith. You knew . . . were you afraid?”

Jane: My mother says I’m chasing moonbeams. I told her I’d rather have a moonbeam than the life I had before.

Jane and Marina seem to be both “chasing moonbeams” to dispel their respective losses. Neil, however, does not, grounded in the reality that is as earthbound as the soil he is testing.After leafing through the worn pages of a Bible, she is seduced into physical courtship with Neil who seems intent on putting her through the same paces as Marina.Do you want this? she asks.

This isn’t a simple offering of her body, but of her, the total package (despite one of the trailer edits that makes it seem otherwise). She brings to flesh Father Quintana asking “do you want to commit yourself?”

“Do you know what you want?  I can’t afford to make mistakes with men anymore.”

She is lonely … vulnerable:
“I want you to come more often. Can you? I’ve been waiting for you.” 

I felt wild.

To Neil: “You. You make me happy. You make me laugh.”

In voiceover: You took me.

Without any context but the sounds of birds and Einoiuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, she whispers: “No.” Girl. Little girl. Fool.

Despite not wanting to be hurt again, she is intent on setting herself up for the fall.Here I am. Yes. She is, indeed, with Neil, chasing a moonbeam.

*  *  *  *  *

Lonely, hurt and jobless, Marina wanders the streets of Paris.

I feel stripped bare. I don’t know where I’m going. I return to my apartment and collapse.  I can’t take it here anymore. Paris is dreadful.

She is alone now having lost Tatiana (who returned to her father). Marina wants to return to the United States.

I met someone who told me he’d marry me so I could get a green card.

Neil wanders the Wasteland of the outskirts of Bartlesville. He is ankle deep in muck. It is a physical wasteland, threatening to be reduced to complete ruin, much like Neil is a spiritual wasteland. Even here Lubezki and Malick manage to find beauty. A few strands of green grass poke through the gray clay of the earth.

Cryptically, Neil says in voiceover: Tell her . . .

Back at the ranch, Jane continues to long for Neil who has already decided to leave her:

I trust you, I want to be your wife. I love you.

It is here we see her darkest depths. McAdams effectively channels her character’s painful yearning.

Walk away.

Her house, if it is her house, suggests remnants of the past she cannot bear to leave behind. A doll in a bed with a blanket pulled up to its chin. Pulled shades. Dark interior. She wanders like a specter.

I thought I knew you. Now I don’t think you ever were. 

A set table with a china cup and wine glass and silverware. The framed photo of a child and candelabra. (excellent, Jack Fisk!)

What we had was nothing. 

Once again, Neil is unwilling to “run the risk of failure.”

You made it into nothing. 

Pleasure. Lust. She wanders. A pantomime search . . .

Exit Jane.

Re-enter Marina.

*  *  *  *  *

With the understanding that Neil is marrying her so she can obtain a green card, Marina is intent on resparking what they had back at Mont St. Michel. They marry in a courtroom with handcuffed prisoners as their witnesses, vowing to be “faithful” to each other.

I feel so close to you that I could almost touch you. 

Back home, Marina  finds an old pair of ballet shoes, presumably hers. Childlike, she bounces on a bed.

There is always this invisible something that I feel so strongly, which ties us so tightly together. 

She is boundless with joy.

I love this feeling, even if it makes me cry sometimes. 

Like a child, she frequents a playground. She swings on a swing.

It is so strong, this conviction, that I belong to you. 

She tugs on Neil’s arm, he seems unwilling to reconcile to her advances. She dances with a live chicken, singing a song.

Maybe you’d like me to stop telling you I love you. I know that strong feelings make you uneasy. 

Tell me if that’s so.

She plays on a piano [Tchaikovsky’s “Barcarolle“] in their home.

Neil remains a wandering presence, not saying anything at all. Things left unsaid speak volumes more than empty dialogue. He is a restless presence, constantly mulling, and we are never allowed to fathom his heart. It is a disconnect that disconcerts not only Marina (and Jane), but the viewers.He turns off his bedside lamp as he lies in bed . . . alone.Marina turns her lamp on in a jump cut. She lies in bed alone.The streets of nighttime Bartlesville: insects whirring, dogs barking, distant train whistles, and the hum of fluorescent lights buzzing over an empty gas station.His disconnect is as fleeting as Marina’s Facetime with Tatiana on a laptop after she is suddenly cut off (after Tatiana’s stepmother (Tamar Baruch) appears).

Marina may have gotten what she wanted, but she is no better served.

*  *  *  *  *

Father Quintana preaches to his half-empty church. Marina meditates over a lit candle.

“Awaken the love, the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. You say ‘Christ said this, Christ said that.’ What do you say? And what you say, does it come from God within? Answer that which is of God. In every woman and every man, know each other in that love that never changes, which is not like a cloud in the sky gone by afternoon.”

Examining Neil’s bedroom table, she finds Neal’s wedding band buried beneath some papers. She is upstairs. He downstairs. Together but separate.In a doctor’s clinic, Neil and Marina listen to a doctor point out options for medical issues she is having. Removing her IUD device means she doesn’t need a hysterectomy, which carries with it the possibility of having children . . . with Neal. “So would you like to have children?” the doctor asks Marina.”Some day.”

The couple marry, this time in a church.

“God gave us marriage as a Holy Mystery, in which a man and woman are joined together and become one and with affection and tenderness, freely give themselves to each other.” They swap rings, and are reminded that each carries with it a “sign of their constant faith. “In bed, a nude Marina asks Neil, with pants still on, “what are you afraid of?” This, it will pan out, will become a new source of frustration for Marina.

In a scene of physical trust, Marina falls backwards into the arms of Neil.

In the same garb as that of the end, Marina wanders the grasslands, seemingly lost.

An eagle is astride her shoulder.

Where are we when we’re there? Why not always?

Sun shafts poke the blue depths of a sea. A Loggerhead Turtle combs the outskirts of a coral reef.

Which is the truth? What we know up there or down here? 

The sound of a tolling bell. An empty house. Marina walks through one of the rooms.

She observes a lanky carpenter (Charles Baker) toiling on a table saw outside a window. He offers her a stringed instrument (like she was plucking earlier in the film) and recedes into the background, presumably, waiting in answer to his call.Their home is slowly furnished. It has furniture now, but feels no less empty. Scenes with children and a brief flashback with Tatiana and the earth’s shadow further suggests the new emptiness in Marina.


She has a [new?] friend, a dark-haired Italian girl (Romina Mondello) whom she shares details of Neal’s unexplained absences: “He just goes, just like that. I don’t know where he goes.” Her friend’s advice is to free herself of this unnecessary baggage and, unencumbered, enjoy her life anew.

“Leave while you can, now that you’re still young. Beautiful. Your whole life in front of you. Live and do what you like. Life’s a dream. In a dream you can’t make mistakes. In a dream you can be whatever you want. Anything. Leave this place. It’s cramped. Small. There’s nothing here.”

The same faces Marina thought “honest” are deemed “false” by her friend. She tosses Marina’s handbag behind a shrub and implores her that she needs nothing else, that they are “free” like “gypsies.”

“I’m my own experiment,” her friend declares in Italian, “come get me! Where are all the people? They’re dead. I want someone to surprise me!”

Marina is asked, “Do you think I’m a monster? A vampire? A witch?” She succeeds in freeing Marina from her inhibitions. During the strains of St. Vincent’s song “Now, Now,” (“I’m not pawn to your king/your world on a string”) topless Marina teases Neil as he drives his car. They flirt in a train. Lying on their bed .

St. Vincent:
“You don’t mean that, say you’re sorry
You don’t mean that, say you’re sorry
You don’t mean that, say you’re sorry
You don’t mean that . . . I’ll make you sorry.”
Open me. Enter me. Show me how to love you. Why do we come back down? 

*  *  *  *  *

Father Quintana officiates over the sacrament of Holy Communion, doling out wafers to prisoners with hands protruding from slots in their steel doors. Another prisoner, surrounded by police officers, implores forgiveness. This is Terrence Malick’s most human of films. It is his reliance on actual people from the street, and not that of hired SAG actors brings a whole new authenticity to his work. The rawness of the human condition is depicted, and, besides the principal actors, these are not beautiful people with flawless lives. They are in despair, and have veered somewhere along the line, from the path.

Quintana struggles to reignite his extinguished light, compounded by constantly having to ignite the stagnant faith of others. These are people we can relate to, the wounded and despondent.

Wandering with Bible in hand the poverty-inflicted streets, Bardem’s powerful subdued performance conveys the dwindling loss of faith as he struggles to bring himself closer to Christ. It is a crisis of faith and an example of the “human heart in conflict with itself” as Faulkner once said.

Intensely I seek you. My soul thirsts for you. Exhausted. Will you be like a stream that dries up? He hides from a meth addict rapping her knuckles on his door.

Love is not only a feeling. You shall love, whether you like it or not. Marina is back in church listening to Quintana preach. You shall love, whether you like it or not. You feel your love has died and perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher. 

Marina and Neil continue, conflicted toward imminent dissolution: (Marina) We fight without knowing why. Weak people never bring anything to an end themselves. They wait for others to do it. 

She despises Neal: How had hate come to take the place of love? My tender heart grown hard? Do you want me as a wife? A lover? Companion? Losing control of her, Marina culminates her discontent when she shouts outdoors, “He’s killing me!” She is, for Neil, somewhat of a loose cannon. In a frenzied state she asks, “Do you want me to die? Here . . .”before she pops some pills into her mouth before spitting them back out. The ominous drone of Francesco Lupica’s Cosmic Beam (used to effect in Malick’s previous three films) contributes to the frenzied state of the couple’s disintegration.  It is also an ambiguity to Marina’s mixed emotional state. As extreme as she feels toward Neal, she is also reduced to groveling at his feet. Malick’s constant use of the roaming camera and quick jump edits rapidly move the film toward a close.Why do you turn your back? asks Father Quintana. All I see is destruction. Failure.

He hears Marina’s confession: “I don’t know what I am.”

He delivers the Holy Sacraments of the “body” and “blood of Christ” to Marina. (Marina) My God, what a cruel war. I find two women inside me. One full of love for you. The other pulls me down toward the earth. While Neil fishes from his boat, Marina has an empty dalliance with the carpenter in a motel room. The room itself is as sparse as Neil and Marina’s home. The physical contact is meaningless. Empty. A void that cannot be filled.

Observing the vacant EconoLodge parking lot through the opened door, she peers at the unblinking sunlight from the darkness within. She feels soiled, spent and worthless. Walking home (he didn’t even give her a ride!), she clutches the hem of her skirt and holds the ends of her sweater closed. Back home she begins to pack a suitcase. Observing Neal from the door of a different room, Marina is indecisive. She observes him in the yard repairing a fence.In the car with Neil, she reveals her indiscretion: Forgive me.This is the first spark of life we ever see in Neil. Enraged he stops the car and leaves Marina on the side of the road. Later he consults an attorney for divorce proceedings. “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. You can’t feel sorry for yourself.”Neil consults Father Quintana who advises, “You have to struggle with yourself. You have to struggle with your own . . . strength.”A jump cut to Marina holding a child. Whether it is a product of her affair, or Neil, or just soem random child she is holding, we aren’t told. (let me know if you know!)

(Neil) Why? I saw you again. 

Father Quintana reveals to a mentally-disabled man that he is leaving the town for western Canada, who tells Quintana: “We need people like you in Bartlesville.”

Where are you leading me? Teach us where to seek you. 

Christ, be with me.
Christ before me.
Christ behind me.
Christ in me.
Christ beneath me.
Christ above me.
Christ on my right.
Christ on my left.
Christ in the heart.Thirsting. We thirst.

Flood our souls with your spirit and life . . . so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours.  Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you. 

Marina and Neil are at the airport. Marina requests to keep his name. Back in France, we are left with Marina’s thoughts:

Love that loves us, thank you.

Marina wanders the countryside, much like Pocahontas in a state of despair after learning of Smith’s “death.”

At some points, the land seems like Oklahoma, and it very well may be (in flashback) and remains an ending as ambiguous as any in a Malick film.

She stares into the sun, the source of all. The Wonder.

We are brought back to Mont St. Michel in a jump-cut.

*  *  *  *  *

I favor this film over The Tree of Life. I feel Tree is truncated still. Perhaps when it is released in its extended form, it will have at last be given its  rightful birth. To The Wonder, on the other hand, seems to be the right length. It doesn’t seem to lack anything at all.  It is a melding of Malick’s spiritual and philosophical ideals refined by an acquired grasp and economy of keen and fluid editing. The seemingly swift production and post-production (by Malick’s standards) seems to have been accomplished with a surge of ambition and confidence. It is his most quiet film, yet benefits still from an impeccable sound design, a sublime selection of music and score and further benefited by Jack Fisk’s competent art direction. It is, in my opinion, Terrence Malick’s masterwork and perhaps neck-to-neck with the extended cut of The New World.

I know there will be many that will disagree. However, this is the first Terrence Malick film that won me over with its initial viewing. I can only believe that it will be further enhanced by repeat viewings.

Editor’s note: Paul Maher Jr.’s book, One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick is available here.


  1. Christopher Givens says

    Great breakdown of the film, how’s the book coming? I bought a copy a long time ago but never received it! haha, i forgot until now, again, I guess it never came out but I paid anyway, hope it goes to a good cause. look forward to the first film, all the best and good luck.

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