by Eric Byrd
A few years ago Slate's culture editor David Haglund posted a piece called “Marilynne Robinson, the Terrence Malick of the Literary World.” Malick and Robinson, he said, are kindred artists. They share a pattern of striking debuts, mid-career hiatus, and late fertility; also, an unfashionable theological seriousness, and a deep attention to the connectedness of all life, a view of nature as a “shining garment in which God is concealed and revealed.” After happening upon Robinson's 1989 polemic Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution at a time when I was obsessed with Malick's latest film (and his first set in the present of filming) To the Wonder, I would add that their similar preoccupation with wholeness means a similar horror at environmental pollution, and a desire to remind their audiences that, all being connected, those who exploit the environment exploit their fellow man; and that the immediate toxic aftermath, and the red-handed schemes of disposal, first harm the poor and powerless.
In Mother Country Robinson situates the blithe disposal of nuclear waste in the Irish sea and the contamination of Cumbria within Britain's tradition of “expropriation and immiseration” of its poor, from the Poor Laws, to the displacements of industrialization, to the contemptuous coercions of the welfare state. To the Wonder was filmed in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a town in which Malick lived part of his childhood, a town on the edge of a contaminated zone that embraces northeastern Oklahoma, and parts of Kansas and Missouri. A century of unrestricted lead and zinc mining (privileged war industries, supplying lead shot for the Civil War and shell casings for the World Wars) resulted in generations of intellectually delayed or disabled schoolchildren, cancer-ridden adults, and a landscape undermined by excavations and dotted with “chat piles,” hillocks of granular lead-laced waste on which miner's families used to picnic. Ben Affleck's character, Neil, an environmental scientist, is shown climbing one. Within the zone, Picher, Oklahoma, was in 2009 entirely abandoned – its 1,600 residents paid to leave – and now stands as a ghost town. Robinson was born and raised in Sandpoint, Idaho, near the Coeur d'Alene Basin, another condemned zone of lead-zinc mines.
To the Wonder is so exciting a development because it is a masterful integration of the autobiographical past and the social present. On first viewing I thought it was about hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” – which it is. Past pollutions inform ours. In the United States, for the sake of “energy independence” state governments, with the tacit approval of the Federal, are knowingly poisoning hundreds of rural communities. One of the most striking sequences of To the Wonder is Neil's survey of an endangered neighborhood. His presence, and the invasive intimacy of his work – locks are snipped from young hair, and bagged as specimens; excavators claw the properties – draws a crowd, fearful, agitated, almost hostile. They are sick and want to know why. A priest played by Javier Bardem despairs before the diseased and immiserated flock.
The early works of Malick and Robinson dramatize the conflict between wayfarers and householders, proprietors and the landless. In Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and Housekeeping (1980) wayfarers rootless because of traumas, or apprehension of their essential transience, or an awareness of their economic expendability, rub up against respectable folk with their illusions of permanence and solidity, their heavy hoards of aesthetically ordered objets, islands of amenity in the migrant-worked landscape.
In Housekeeping the rail-riding, park-sleeping, “unredeemed transient” Sylvie returns to her home town and childhood house, to care for her two nieces, Lucille and Ruthie, orphaned years before by the suicide of their single mother and unguarded after their grandmother's natural death. Fingerbone, Idaho is a thin town of only a few generations' settlement, “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Sylvie's acceptance of ruin and decay, her unwillingness to shut out or interfere with any animal life, and her indifference to “ladylike” appearance, cleanliness, weatherproofing, yard maintenance, neighbor opinions – all the housekeeping rituals that preserve the integrity of the fragile abodes and the pride of this “shallow-rooted” Western community – soon alienates Lucille, who goes to live with others, and eventually attracts the attention of the authorities. Sylvie the wandering ascetic, the squatter who sleeps in her shoes, makes a belated effort to appear a householder, but when it becomes clear the court will take Ruthie away, she and Ruthie burn down the family house and hop a freight.
At points in their violent transits of the Great Plains, the bandits of Badlands and the migrant workers/grifters of Days of Heaven trespass wonderingly through late Victorian interiors hung with paintings, softened with carpets and antimacassars, calmly cluttered with vases, crystal decanters of port, and many small tables – all the non-portable bric-a-brac of gentility. The idea that bourgeois respectability is a precondition of femininity troubles Robinson's and Malick's characters in similar ways. The arrival of slovenly Sylvie could not come at worse time for Lucille, then a teenager anxious to appease feminine norms. In Days of Heaven Bill overcomes Abby's initial objections to his scheme of marrying her to the wealthy and conveniently ailing farm-owner by arguing that their rail-riding life of itinerant farm labor reduces her to the level of a whore. After her marriage, outfitted with a trousseau and drawing lessons, Abby does for a time imitate a graceful domestic fixture, the expense of whose maintenance, by being so capably, so intricately met, perhaps assures the lonely, isolated farmer of the civility and solidity of his estate. Illusory assurance; then the revelation of deception, a plague of locusts, a ruinous fire, and a murder.
So, “wayfarers” is perhaps innocuous. The word is sweetly sad. It belongs in fairy tales, picture-book Bibles – in figurative scenes, as when in The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne says that Phoebe's talent for domestic arrangement is so enchanting that a wild hut of underbrush, “tossed together by wayfarers through the primitive forest, would acquire the home aspect by one night's lodging of such a woman, and would retain it long after her quiet figure had disappeared into the surrounding shade.” Like Robinson's, Malick's wayfarers are incendiaries; they leave fire in their tracks. Malick would make a great scene out of Sylvie's arson. In Badlands and Days of Heaven domains of order and affluence are consumed in lovingly photographed conflagrations. After Kit kills Holly's father, they torch his house before hitting the road; the camera lingers over the fiery destruction of Holly's frilly room.
In Days of Heaven, Bill and Abby's interlude of ambivalent, deceptive domesticity comes to end when a fire – indirectly their fault – destroys the wheat harvest, occasions a murder, and makes them wandering fugitives once again.