American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.
Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.
This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.
To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.
Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.