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From ‘Badlands’ to ‘The Tree of Life’: How Terrence Malick’s Filmography Led Him ‘To the Wonder’

Written by on April 10, 2013 

Terrence Malick’s oeuvre is one of both multitudes and individuality, a series of films that present a world through which we can see reflections and distortions of our own. Friday’s release of To the Wonder will generate a wealth of dialogue, obviously, and much of it is bound to focus on the unexpected ways it stands apart from the writer-director’s five previous features. For the purpose of this article, however, we wanted to glance at it in a more auteurist sense, hoping to pin down some of the ways it can be said to cover similar ground as everything that had come before.

Of course, a roughly 1,300-word piece is not going to reveal every existing commonality; attempting such a thing is (almost) of equal ambition to a few titles listed here. Instead, this is a look at some of the main themes and formal approaches that, despite its own unique-to-Malick surfaces, meld To the Wonder with a rapidly expanding filmography.

The Romance of Badlands and Days of Heaven

Whether or not you want to go back and forth on their respective status as a “romance” in the traditional definition — the comments section is open to such things, anyway — all of Terrence Malick’s films deal with the question of love in distinct ways. What makes To the Wonder’s intermingling a greater foundation of discussion for the auteurist set — more than, say, that of the obliquely glimpsed marriage in The Tree of Life — is how it brings us back to the first phase of this writer-director’s career.

What transpires between Ben Affleck’s Neil and Olga Kurylenko’s Marina is not as bleak, thankfully, though it still manages to illustrate that never-ending human struggle in ways Malick, for decades, simply has not. The female perspective afforded in Badlands is utilized once again, here, and to strong effect: at once nestling us deeply inside and keeping us two steps behind the thoughts of a partner unsure of where life has taken her, the integration is right in the man’s wheelhouse. While there’s a greater focus on the masculine side this time around — Neil, concurrently, is less of a mystery than Martin Sheen’s Kit Carruthers — he’s going back to representations shaped by a feminine worldview above all else.

With Badlands in mind, it makes sense that To the Wonder’s finest moments echo Malick’s next, possibly best picture, Days of Heaven. Like that 1978 masterpiece, the 2013 effort plunges into personal dynamics via the landscape of faces and bodies, these human presences weaving in and out of the frame, interacting with one another in manners leaps and bounds more effectively than anything his dialogue can communicate. Malick has never been considered much of an “actor’s director,” but look at the way he informs the characters’ relationships: a synthesis of camera movement and physical action that recalls the likes of Miklós Jancsó, putting both the image’s creator and inhabitant in a harmony that forms a physical dialogue unlike most of what we’ve ever seen.

The Emergence of a New Style from The Thin Red Line

Ending a nearly two-decade sabbatical, Malick returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a more visually kinetic, sprawling journey than what his past work would’ve hinted at. Despite having since dropped cinematographer John Toll for Emmanuel Lubezki, the former was asked — excepting more traditional conversation sequences, which have all but been jettisoned by now — to deliver the sort of visual examinations most come to associate the filmmaker with today. Battle sequences do not play like battle sequences, nor like much of what Malick had dealt in 20 years prior — but it does, to various extents, resemble what will be in theaters this Friday.

So, if we’re being honest (and why not?), this example would encapsulate a large part of what makes The New World and The Tree of Life such special, stimulating pieces of cinema. While Line stands to yours truly as the weakest of his output, over time I’ve grown to respect it further as a massively important evolution — not just in something as broad and, qualitatively speaking, subjective as “style,” but the feeling Malick aspires to transfer from artist to audience through form.

Like the two other pictures that followed his first epic (going under the conventional sense), To the Wonder continues this trend, only pushing the experimentation in cinematic language — along with Malick’s clear love of impressionistic imagery, the lack of cosmos and dinosaurs notwithstanding — to what is, now as often as ever, the point of near-abstraction. If The Thin Red Line were never to have been made, who’s to say what the man’s filmography would, speaking literally, look like now?

The Pocahontas Tale of The New World

This one’s so obvious and contains such strong parallels that it must (must) be intentional. Malick already provided the definitive Pocahontas account in 2005, but something about that story must have created an itch he can’t fully scratch: To the Wonder has notable strands of The New World‘s DNA in its blood, while also putting a greater focus on a woman whose emanations of love could reach across the Atlantic Ocean.

It sounds light on paper (or your digital screen), I know, so you might have to see it for yourself. Across either, Malick portrays his female subject as some incomprehensibly powerful object of beauty, one who can even force men into changing their lives simply to be her partner in life’s journey. As beautiful as the notion is — and, sometimes, as simple, e.g. when one mentally aligns Kurylenko and Q’orianka Kilcher‘s final waltzes — it also makes way for a recurrence of lost love; from here, we find echoes of thematic underpinnings which were previously contained within merely a single film. To note a number of ways The New World and To the Wonder either overlap or differ in their mirrored tales can only embolden their position as odd, unexpected companion pieces.

A Modern Landscape, as Seen in The Tree of Life

Before The Tree of Life hit in May 2011, there was a vague idea as to what was really going on with Malick’s new epic — enough to legitimately ask the simple question of what would “happen,” plot-wise, days before its Cannes premiere. (This, in spite of a lengthy summary touted as being “From the Desk of Terrence Malick.”) Upon its eventual release, the modern-day segments — at the time, a definite first for the helmer — were the most divisive and debated (especially if we’re including “the heaven beach”). Regardless of the ways in which they’ve become more accepted in the short time since, their existence remains no less fascinating with a little perspective.

Picking up those pieces and running with them almost every which way, To the Wonder invites us to ponder even further. In the vein of those controversial, Sean Penn-led sequences, Malick and Lubezki observe familiar spaces just as they did the unseen, distant past, imbuing small details we’d consider totems of an everyday life with the aura of something otherworldly. But it goes much further than Tree, taking a head-on confrontation of facets once avoided: consumerism, technology, even methods of travel.

From here, finally, the past finds its parallels with today. Pocahontas once journeyed across great waters by boat; now, she takes an international airline. Holly Sargis would write entries in her journal about the man she’d marry as an adult; if they came to have a daughter, she could communicate with her on Skype. Those farm workers who had food prepared in a hilltop house… can now acquire their meals at Sonic. No matter the methods, it’s still Terrence Malick’s world, and we’re lucky to be allowed inside.

To the Wonder opens in theaters and hits VOD on Friday, April 12th.

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