I was first introduced to the work of Terrence Malick by an Art Professor and mentor a little over a year ago in Orvieto, Italy, where I was studying abroad for the semester. He brought our drawing class into a tiny little theater in the town’s library, and before he popped Days of Heaven - Malick’s 1978 debut about love and loss on the depression-era Texas plains, into the projector – he gave us a brief pep talk. He told us a little bit about what to expect when watching a Malick film, but beyond that, he didn’t give much more than this simple admonition: “When you find yourself wondering if you’re missing something, wondering if this film is just airy, incoherent, pretentious eye candy,” he said, “I suggest you err on the side of wonderful.”
And with that, he left us. To err on the side of wonderful. I’ve taken this simple trope with me as I’ve watched all of Malick’s films, all the way up to To the Wonder, and I imagine that the director himself would give similar advice to his viewers. Perhaps more than any of his other films, To the Wonder is about choice, the first being how we approach the film. Whether we realize it or not, modern cinematic conventions have instilled in us a certain set of standards. We expect certain cuts and cues in certain moments, swells of music in dramatic altercations, and a meandering pace only in less important scenes. But without apology, Malick takes these conventions and throws them out the window, and as he does so, he focuses his camera on the window itself. He invites us to stop and stare at the way that glass catches the sunset and spreads into a web, or the fluorescent glow of a fast food restaurant at dusk.
But to say that all To the Wonder offers is a higher appreciation of the physical beauty in our midst is to short change the emotional and spiritual drama that Malick weaves into these landscapes. Though he heralds beauty, he does so while dwelling in love’s ambiguity. The broken relationships – between husband and wife, between man and God – are the spaces where Malick invites us to consider the question: is Love a choice? We hear the refrain of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) throughout the film, reminding himself, the viewer, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) that indeed, it is. At times, they succeed, and at others, they fail. But day in and day out, the choice remains.
And this is our choice too, in viewing and in living that same refrain. I hope you choose to err on the side of wonderful.