The Honeyed Light, The Magic, The Majesty, The Endless Boredom: Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder"

by Maria Bustillos and David Roth

In which Maria Bustillos and David Roth venture to the movies to see the latest by Terrence Malick. It is called To the Wonder and it is 113 minutes long.

David Roth: There’s a thing that happens to me watching Terrence Malick movies. I marvel at the way they look — which I know is a novel response, but I’m a unique dude — and kind of chuckle to myself at the involuted, ponderous what-if-God-was-one-of-us philosophical stuff. And then I walk outside secure in my sophistication and am instantly struck by how THE WORLD IS SO RICH AND BEAUTIFUL HOLY SHIT.

Maria Bustillos: Yes, first things first: I nearly died of the BEAUTY. Every frame is drenched in this honeyed light. Water!! Trees!! It turns out their leaves are tenderly trembling in all the light!

David: Mont Saint-F’ing-Michel, which is itself basically what a Terrence Malick movie would be like if it had to become an ancient French monastery in a tidal marsh.

Maria: Mud! Boots! Splashing! all so beautiful… That quicksand-looking part, wow! I bet there will be an even bigger stampede of tourists, now.

David: Of film aesthetes and/or mostly silent very beautiful totally opaque couples who are apparently having a tough time communicating.

Maria: Mute people, so much muteness, it is like they were struck dumb by various types of gorgeousness and then made a huge mess of their lives.

David: The film begins there, with two beautiful people in love and on vacation and voice-overing about how in love they are, and it is all very awe-ing and gorgeous and evocative of all kinds of tough-to-name things. But ALSO there is basically a very high-production-value perfume commercial happening in the foreground. With narration.

Maria: A string of golden moments, just like your life, but also this sinister tug that’s dangerously like marketing, yeah. “The Moments Of Your Life. Buy Diamonds.”

David: “A joint production of Magnolia Pictures and DeBeers.” It’s maybe depressing that this is the association we make when we’re presented with something impressionistic and beautiful and expensive-seeming. Give us Arvo Pärt and beautiful people and so incredibly fucking much wheat and words about love and somehow our first thought is: “credit or debit?”

Maria: Plus: some carnal knowledge, the beauties of flesh, and loads of twirlin’.

David: It is important to emphasize how much twirling is going on. It is the main method through which the film’s female characters — adult and child alike — get from one place to the next. It is the only way anyone gets through a field of grain, and somehow they spend about a third of the film in fields of grain.

Maria: Not just in a field, either. Eternal twirlin’ and skippin’ just I guess from yr.joie de vivre (French.) Any old where, inside the house, a grown woman literally bouncing on the bed just on account of being too beautiful? And yet such a sad message in it, one of total solipsism.

David: It’s a supremely lonely and abstracted movie.

Maria: Seriously, not one connection other than the sexual ones, which come across as kind of kittens in a basket? The only person’s name you learn is the child’s name? Did we even learn Javier Bardem’s name?

David: It made the credits really weird, because all the characters have names that are never spoken.

Maria: They acquire namesafter the movie. “Neil?! Who the hell is oh, the main guy, okay.”

David: They should’ve just gone with The Man, The Wife, Sad Priest, Ranch Babe Love Interest, Wife’s Anarchic Visiting Italian Ladyfriend With Unconventional Shirt.

Maria: Scary Freako Billy Bob Thornton Guy.

David: Oh right, that guy. Weasel Jenkins, I think was the character’s name.

Maria: Child Who Is the Only Sane Person In Shootin’ Distance. Wait, no: we know her name. Tatiana.

David: Yes. It’s spoken aloud, unlike any other name in the film.

Maria: So, as to what happened.

David: It is, and I say this with love and some admiration, mostly a bunch of gorgeous motherfuckers with spare interior monologues expressing Terrence Malick-ian thoughts about God. It definitely does not give us any examples of human connection. And the thoughts sort of suffer, and turn a bit silly, outside of a meaningful human context.

Maria: Death by beauty in every frame, but while I loved it I thought it was a little bit nihilist.

David: Was there any laughing-at going on in your theater?

Maria: Not one iota.

David: There was some in mine.

Maria: What did they laugh at?

David: I kind of contributed. I snickered, not laughed, when Rachel McAdams said that Ben Affleck’s character made her laugh.

Maria: Oh boy, well, yeah.

David: And I cast my mind back across the seven hilarious words he’d said in the film to that point — “Love, why, why, why, oil, love.” And was like “yeah, I can see why you’d want this strong-jawed cut-up wandering around your beautifully lit ghost ranch.”

Maria: Serious question though: did he want la belle Olga to stay in Oklahoma? “If you’d asked I would have stayed,” she says. Was he just too mute, or did he not want her to stay? Maybe even he didn’t know. Or are you meant to think that he was he worried about them being poisoned by the poisoned AmeriKKKa? Because it is POISONED, even though it looks so «propre».

David: All that irradiated beauty.

Maria: The beasts are acting funny! Excepting the wonder-buffalo, who look to have been inhabited by as many Greek gods. (Rachel McAdams better look out, I thought.)

David: It was weird and maybe a little admirable, the way that Malick broke off the twirling for a bit to go into the oil-damaged Oklahoma shantytowns with the non-actors. In a certain sense, it grounded the abstraction — theological, love-related, 100% Free Range Malick — in a world with more urgent problems. There are also multiple scenes at a Sonic Burger, which is a different sort of poison and one I never would’ve thought Malick would address. Sadly, no honeyed, aching shots of tater tots in a sad paper bag.

Maria: The scenes of poverty were unnerving and great and Bardem was perfect in all of those. There’s one where he doesn’t, he just cannot, answer the door for a parishioner that is so wonderful. Hello! I am human and I am SO not handling Saddle-Faced Meth Chick right now.

David: There’s a wedding scene, with him standing all stricken in the middle of it… there was some more unintentional comedy in that. Like, imagine getting married, you’re very excited and your life is changing, and the guy doing the honors looks and acts like he just got a diagnosis of butt cancer and is saddened by the thought of your existence.

Maria: Yours, his, everyone’s. Well, but real priests will often tell you that there is a lot of joy in their work. Because people are happy for a lot of it, there are baptisms, weddings, people convalesce.

David: Surely. Bardem… didn’t seem to be experiencing much of that.

Maria: NONE I thought it wasn’t fair at all, not one bit.

David: Saddest dude on film since Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. It’s weird what Malick asks of his actors, though. It’s really as much modeling as it is acting. Bardem gives a performance. And Olga Kurylenko, who’s Marina, is so beautiful that I’d honestly rather not talk about it because it makes me upset. And she does great at doing what she’s asked to do, mostly. But there’s also the question of what she’s asked to do.

Maria: There is? When you know very well it is TWIRLING and related varieties of transcendental frolicking (some bouncing, skipping, a bit of swinging on the swing). TRUE that she is mind-wrenchingly heart-tearingly beautiful also. THEN he is all eh, okay bye?! THEN he is all oh hello Rachel McAdams.

David: Also weird that there is, for all that love talk, not any real sex in this movie. Much giggly tussling. MUCH grain-chasing. Some grown-ass-woman-jumping-on-a-bed stuff.

Maria: Well, there was a little sex, in the grotesque Econo Lodge. I could not figure that out at all whatsoever.

David: Weasel Jenkins gave her an autoharp. This isn’t complicated, Maria.

Maria: Autoharp = Erotic Device (wait, or is it a dulcimer?).

David: I mean, yeah, that’s textbook. You learn that in like your first sexting class in college. Can’t really read a Penthouse Forum letter without one. “I’m an autoharp instructor at a small midwestern bikini academy, and I never thought I’d be writing a letter like this…”

Maria: “If I accept this autoharp (dulcimer!) it means 7p.m. in two weeks’ time at the Econo Lodge of the Damned.”


Maria: Well, I loved what you said earlier about how the people’s problems are situated in a far larger mess. And then the whole thing is wrapped in the beauty. Because maybe that is just straight up true. That is, I can’t think of a more coherent or correct description of the world.

David: So here’s the thing with the movie, and maybe for me with Terrence Malick in general. I am frustrated by how uninterested he is in people, for the most part, and certainly relative to Humanity. At least relative to how interested he is in THEMES. Themes like faith and love and God and such. Which really mostly only mean anything to me insofar as they relate to people.

Maria: Bardem’s sad priest was trying to talk to God though, that was the one adult conversation.

David: It was. One-sided, as such conversations tend to be. The rest was not a conversation. At least you can get what he’s mournful about.

Maria: “Let me come near you” and so on which was supposed to be the analog to Marina saying the same to Affectless Affleck. But it’s like each person is so completely focused on what he needs for himself. Nobody is serving anyone else’s needs in this movie, there is no FURNITURE, nobody cooks DINNER.

David: Right. That’s the lonesome part. Empty homes with evocative light in them. It’s bleak, and not necessarily because it isn’t clear where God is in all of it.

Maria: All that beautiful skin, and nothing but sex to find in one another!!! Oh my god that can’t even be possible, it is so empty and scary! The problem is too much mindfulness, I think. The moment is so full of moment.

David: Because he keeps making movies more or less exactly like this, I suppose you have to say he’s doing it on purpose.

Maria: There’s not enough space or time or air to think of giving yourself up to a bigger purpose that you care about more. There’s not enough intellection, for once, there’s too muchbeing… Anyway, the balance between the silence of Neil in the face of Marina’s longing, and the silence of God in Bardem’s, is so exact as to seem very deliberate. But then there’s the Rachel McAdams character’s denunciation of the guy. “You reduced anything between us to Lust, to Pleasure,” as if those things were less, or were the wrong thing.

David: Lot of silent figures authoring disappointment across the board. I guess there are different ways to respond to that, right? You push on sadly if you’re a priest, to the extent you can. You rage against it if it breaks your heart. Or you try to love it and fall short because it doesn’t love you back. This is his usual concern, the contrast between the crass smallness of humans and the vast vastness of the natural world, it almost feels like stacking the deck. The people are all SO SMALL, and the extent to which they’re humbled before the vastness is verging on too much. Their passive willed/over-reasoned powerlessness is their only trait. Beyond cheekbones, love for fields of rye, etc.

Maria: That was the weakness, I got to longing for a few traits, by the end. Anything, someone sneezing or spilling a drink. Something to be affectionate or joshing about rather than monumental.

David: And yet it adds up, somehow. It’s ridiculous, it’s self-important, and yet I walked out of the theater into a beautiful afternoon and it was like 20 blocks of walking before I stopped marveling at various (non-pigeon, because there are limits) birds.

Maria: That contrast is arresting and sort of wonderful but my real feeling was to rush home and basically cling to my husband, he had to pry me off with a crowbar practically.

David: Well, yeah, I went into a bar and had a beer. It worked. Just kind of good to be near people.

Maria: Such a liberation.

David: Yeah, the talking. Needed that a lot.

Maria: You and I particularly should get a special reward for seeing this high-pressurely mute movie because we are both so blabby. The strain was considerable. SAY SOMETHING you fucking poltroon, it is a miracle I didn’t just shriek that about twenty times.

David: Someone farted audibly in the theater at some point and that was a relief. People sounds. That’s about as much as we got from Ben Affleck’s character in the film, honestly.

Maria: I thought maybe Malick was indirectly harshing on Marina for being shallow? Like, la belle fran¸aise is performing, capering and skipping for this man’s attention, and he is enjoying her sexually but they never really touch. This was directly indicated, too, by all the veils. Like that Magritte painting, didn’t you think?

David: Veils as performance, veils as barrier, veils as things that blow beautifully in perfect light under sprawling great plains skies. But he and she fundamentally don’t seem to matter to Malick. So, I reread a thing by Annie Dillard before seeing the film, because it seemed a nice pairing with Malick.

Maria: I don’t know her.

David: She’s this super high-octane stylist, but also explicitly concerned with the natural world and the divine, and with writing the most beautiful possible sentences about those things. But there is so much more human presence in what she writes, to me, than there is in Malick’s films when they don’t work. She is there having these thoughts, not doing some oracular channeling. I think she’s the best literary analogue to Malick.

Maria: I’ll nominate Rilke.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

David: I think Dillard’sHoly The Firm, which is a 90-page book about living on the Puget Sound for a little while with a cat, is as close to Malick as anything I’ve read. It’s tough to know where to quote. There’s a dazzling bit about a moth flying into a candle. But her writing is an indication of how a stylist might bring the unceilinged vastness and cruelty and beauty of the natural world into interaction with a sentient human — and does so with conscious artistry — in a way that feels less abstracted. And there’s a search for the divine in her stuff, too:

There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which God burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. A blur of romance clings to our notions of ‘publicans,’ ‘sinners,’ ‘the poor,’ ‘our neighbors,’ as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. There is no one but us.

And this isn’t to weigh one against the other. Or to say that Malick should make a movie in a city where people talk to each other.

Maria: Well, the thing is to feel the connection, the thread between author and reader. And you don’t feel that with Malick, it’s kind of not “for you” in some sense.

David: Right. He should make the movies he wants to make. He is the only one who can make them. I would love to see that craft and searching mind brought to bear on actual people, which I tend to think are the most interesting things on earth. I have always sort of wanted that from Terrence Malick, and I suspect I’ll just go on wanting it.

Maria: It’s the difference between “I want you to understand, you must understand” and “I want to tell the truth, nothing more.” Like an old-fashioned newspaperman who won’t register to vote.

David: It’s very hard to tell a true or true-feeling story from that degree of abstraction, seems to me. How could you do it?

Maria: Well, it’s not my way, and not yours. But the austerity of it compels, I am glad to have seen it though it scared me, almost. Made me long for home and the reassurance that it’s possible to be a different way.