Appraisal — April 22, 2013, 9:00 am

Terrence Malick’s Song of Songs

Does To the Wonder reveal a director lost in his own vision?

To the Wonder (still)To the Wonder, now opening across the country, is far and away Terrence Malick’s most sensual film, which might be his way of sidestepping common sense. We see bare chests, enough sexual intimacy to warrant an R rating, one moment after another of men cupping women’s faces as the light runs along a long naked neck. The reclusive director’s last two pictures were carried in large part by the faces of Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell; in The Thin Red Line, the epic that preceded them in 1998, more than twenty-five actors crowded an enormous canvas for 171 minutes, in what was essentially a woman-free exploration of the landscape of maleness.

Yet in his new film, the camera dwells lovingly on the luminous depths and Botticellian grace of the former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. Rachel McAdams and Romina Mondello flit in and out of the story; Mondello almost wakes the film up from its swoony daze with her shows of spirit, and the complexity and life in both their faces plays off Ben Affleck’s wooden, straight-jawed Americanism like light across a telephone pole. Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, two years ago, was clearly a family story, excavating pieces of the director’s own painful youth in Texas at the hands of a domineering father. His latest seems interested mostly in the twists of love and faithlessness, presented as though a scatter of photographs had been torn out from a wedding album, then cut up and rearranged haphazardly to recall a shattered marriage.

The Tree of Life was clearly Malick’s attempt to offer a majestic cinematic Book of Job; To the Wonder is more like his diaphanous, lyric Song of Songs. In both cases, though, one gets the sense of a director, now sixty-nine years old, trying to pull out fragments of his own story to lend a personal intensity and resonance to the Biblical frames and philosophical enquiries that have always come so naturally to him. Yet in both, the procedure is so elliptical and allegorical that one also gets the sense of a man of great depths muttering to himself, unable to make his private dramas fully intelligible to the world at large. For those of us who see in him one of the transformative artists of the time, the film ends up like an homage to all that he can’t communicate.

The action in Malick’s latest inaction movie can be summarized in a sentence: Marina (Kurylenko), a beautiful European woman, meets Neil, an all-American guy (embodied, almost silently, by Affleck), in Paris and follows him back to the wide-open spaces of Oklahoma, where she experiences the displacement of a Proustian in a Melvillean land, sees him exchange glances with a former flame (McAdams), and hears her doubts echoed on a larger canvas by a priest, Father Quintana (played by a ravaged Javier Bardem). Of all the many directors now claiming to be borrowing from Terrence Malick, none does so more raptly than Malick himself: here is a flow of scenes stalking Marina through golden fields at the magic hour, shot from the back; here is sunlight on a river and the sun above tall trees; here are the stained-glass windows, the Shaker-like modern spaces, the leafy suburban streets of Tree of Life (from which some of the footage is actually taken), mixed with the spritelike dances through the elements seen in The New World (2005). The movie’s love scenes play out the betrayals and reminders of impermanence of Days of Heaven (1978) within the gauzy romantic curtains of The Thin Red Line.

Yet this is also Malick’s first impenitently contemporary film. There are fast-food joints, grocery stores, even a Skype conversation for his magpie camera to dart around and light up. There are glassy airports and high-school marching bands and the scarred white walls of the Paris Metro. As in all his works, trains jut into unpeopled, virgin landscape while suburban homes sit lonely amidst annihilating spaces. For those who’ve entered into the unwavering theology laid out in the five films Malick has released across forty years, this means we’re fully in the divided City of Man, longing to find a way back to something resembling the City of God.

To the Wonder (still)

In the scenes where the camera roams around Kurylenko’s face and her dancing form, we might, at times, be panning across a Renaissance portrait, seeing in the same frame both a Madonna and the suggestion of something fallen, even demonic. Malick, who studied Wittgenstein under Gilbert Ryle at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and famously translated a book by Heidegger at the age of twenty-five, has always had a gift for communicating through faces, and for letting images carry the weight of his ideas. In his best moments (passages of light and shadow in Days of Heaven, parts of The New World and The Tree of Life), he articulates philosophy through lyrical poetry, as an Emerson might have tried to do, translating idealism into concrete scenes and sounds.

“He does not find her lovely; he makes her lovely,” intones Father Quintana in one of the movie’s many voice-overs. Malick might be giving us his entire aesthetic creed in that. The everyday stuff of life — children’s games, a trip to what looks like Kmart, a couple’s journey to Mont St. Michel (the “wonder,” shown early on, that presents the harmony the lovers long to return to) — can be sublime, a glimpse of that wholeness out of which we have fallen. The camera becomes the director’s transparent eyeball, picking out stray images, fleeting plays of light, snatches of the passing scene, as if chancing upon gifts of grace. Yet Malick also brings a tonic groundedness to his contemplative work, in part because he is such a collector of unconsidered trifles: he can never resist an almost deformed, barely human face along the margins (like something out of Flannery O’Connor), a flash of something ancient in the mess of the modern world, or random bits of mumbled dialogue (the equivalent of Annie Dillard publishing found poetry in her book Mornings Like This). By all accounts, in making films, he simply lets his camera roll to see what epiphanies it can pick up where nobody might think to find them.  

At the same time, To the Wonder makes one realize all that Malick has lost in surrendering narrative to gathered moments. Voice-overs in Days of Heaven were delivered in the salty New Yawk twang of Linda Manz, an untutored actor who improvised lines that evoked a homemade Book of Revelation, as earthy and immediate as a child’s nightmares. In that film, Malick matched a colloquial looseness out of Huck Finn with a story taken from the Bible in order to turn a young America into a setting for stories of fire and locusts and divine retribution. When the camera picked out a broken glass in a river, when it began with a small inferno in a factory, when it showed wolves running up slopes at night like Nature’s monitors (or God’s spies), there was a precision to the imagery that gave the moments of transport a frame and a symbolic charge.

To the Wonder, by comparison, lacks music — literally, in the sense that its score cannot catch the sweetness that Ennio Morricone conjured up for Days of Heaven, and metaphorically, in that the images lack compression and rhythm, and therefore meaning. Gone are the mad fiddle music of Doug Kershaw, the dirtied immigrant faces, the wide-awake, spooky narrative. (“We seen trees that the leaves are shaking, and it looks like shadows of guys coming at you and stuff.”) Instead, Marina, in love, says, “Open me. Enter me,” or “I in you. You in me.” In moments of anguish, Father Quintana murmurs, “Everywhere you’re present. And yet I can’t see you.” Javier Bardem’s ancient face is harrowed and full of torment, his voice so resonantly inhabited that he gives his doubts more substance than the words deserve. Yet it’s sobering that perhaps the most eloquent director in contemporary American film is offering us platitudes.

It’s apt that Bardem, who played something akin to the Devil in the film of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, takes on the role of a man of God here; Malick has always shared with his fellow Plains mystic an ability to find God and his shadow hiding out in the American grain, and an otherworldly lyricism that plays out a story of Old Testament justice and brutality through a few solitary drifters in the West. But like McCarthy, Malick seems to live so far from the world these days that many of what must sound to him like revelations are, in truth, commonplaces; he alternates scenes of overpowering grandeur with lines a sophomore might blush at. (Marina’s assessment of America: “A place so calm. Honest. Rich.”) It’s as if he’s so lost inside his own vision that he has no sense of how others speak and think. I noted with relish three names listed in the credits as “Humanity Unit Consultants.”

To the Wonder (still)

No one walked out of the To the Wonder showing I attended on the first day of its run in Los Angles. (I saw The Tree of Life in the same cinema, and perhaps half the audience headed for the exits, many during the early twenty-minute, IMAX-worthy sequence early showing the history of the world.) I could feel the audience loosening up when Marina said, in French, “Stop being so serious,” and again when a wild black man—one of the few men of color in Malick’s world—told Father Quintana in church, “Got to have a little more excitement!” And when Romina Mondello, in a glancing exchange, screamed out against the deadness, the blankness, the nowhereness of the Oklahama landscape, we might have been hearing not just Malick’s beloved theme of Old World fallenness circling round New World openness, and not just his cry against the world he grew up in (much of the film was shot in the same small town where his parents once lived, Bartlesville, Oklahoma), but one part of the director crying out against the other.

I will never forget the day thirty-four years ago when I walked into a Sunday afternoon showing of Days of Heaven in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just after it was released. I had never seen a work so transfixing, or met a film so intellectually rich and dense and eloquent that nonetheless pierced and uplifted me in some place beyond the reach of words. When his swelling music and found poetry come together, Malick can make us feel something above us and within us, moments of transformation (or days of heaven) that we seldom glimpse; he gives us much of the classical wisdom we recognize from Greek tragedy or philosophy textbooks, but also in, say, Kurylenko’s face, something of that transfiguring beauty we see in the person beside us when we’re in love. That rigorous commitment to emotional and even spiritual effects made me steal away from a dozen obligations so I could see the film again the following day, and then more than thirty times in the next few years.

But nowadays Malick seems to have reached a point where, in trying to be personal, he has squandered some of the impersonal power of his films; humans are really just pawns and props in his landscape — silhouettes — and when he tries to humanize them, he too often ends up with neither allegory nor realism. Perhaps, as he nears his seventies, he’s planning to give us looser, thrown-off sketches from his notebook, as Philip Roth and Don DeLillo have done, or as Leonard Cohen did in his 2004 record Dear Heather — though Cohen could offer Malick a lesson in how Romantics can grow up through the use of irony and self-questioning. Those of us who love Malick’s uncompromising daring and American originality can celebrate the fact that he has finally won acclaim and global exposure (notably the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Tree of Life) even as his films seem to have relinquished some of the tightness and narrative bite and brilliance of Days of Heaven and Badlands.

For now, though, we must content ourselves with rough drafts like To the Wonder, which seems at once rich and cursory, lavish in scenes of transcendent beauty that add up to a fraction of their parts. I would gladly watch it again and again, especially for the scenes with Kurylenko and Bardem, much as I’d listen to a piece by Bach for its moments of radiance; no one can turn film into a vehicle for illumination as Terrence Malick does. And had this been the first of his films that I’d seen, I’d acknowledge it as one of the most transporting and individual films of my lifetime. But I can’t say I’d recommend it to many people, and I wish someone would bring Malick out of his unworldly reveries and remind him of what happened to Wordsworth as he aged. His films continue to give us more beauty than we’ll see elsewhere in the Cineplex or most other places, but each one only hints at the greater stuff that this lonely explorer, fashioning exquisite pictures in the editing room, has yet to bring forth from his exalted solitude.

Single Page
is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His most recent piece for Harper’s was “Nothing Serious: P.G. Wodehouse and the costs of innocence” (March 2013).

More from Pico Iyer:

Appreciation February 14, 2014, 12:29 pm

I Told You When I Came I Was a Stranger

Leonard Cohen’s first public musical performance

From the March 2013 issue

Nothing Serious

P. G. Wodehouse and the costs of innocence

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge authored a 69-page ruling preventing New York City from enforcing zoning laws pertaining to adult bookstores and strip clubs.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today