A poetic chronicle of love lost and found and spinning off into some beguiling crepuscular spiritual limbo, To the Wonder is the first film from Terrence Malick set entirely in the contemporary world. Coming less than two years after The Tree of Life, it is also a remarkable addition to Malick’s oeuvre for the swiftness with which it follows its predecessor. Malick bridges the mainstream and the personal in a manner unique in today’s marketplace; he manages to helm the most lavish and star-studded art films in the world. He is one of the cinema’s most stalwart recluses and secret-keepers, a Salingerian sorcerer typically steeped in genesis (and, it would seem, Genesis) for unusually prolonged periods; he is, or was, as famous for the lengthy gaps between his films—two decades and various industrial sea changes passed between the releases of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line—as for those films’ unforgettable lyricism, their idiosyncratic voice-overs and hifalutin philosophical preoccupations. That To the Wonder arrives as expediently and with as relatively little fanfare as it does is in a sense a positive development. I like the idea that Malick, now nearing 70, is suddenly opting to try his hand at being a steady working filmmaker, rather than lording over major cinematic events and contending with all the unreasonable expectations that come with that. (How tired I am of hearing people weigh in on The Tree of Life as though it were the dawn of man… Mm, wait a minute…) Point is, I like that Malick might be willing to submit his muse to a more relaxed and less brooded-over process, to offer us more variations on his sui generis way of making films, even at the risk of failure.
To the Wonder finds Malick taking what has emerged as the modus operandi of the second phase of his career to new extremes. The film is for the most part almost devoid of dialogue. All is montage and a disembodied chorus of voices speaking to their conscience, or their god, or their own existential reckoning. Malick has all but left conventional narrative and character development behind, and this liberation is often thrilling and adventurous. It also comes at a price. Malick, one of the few U.S. filmmakers of the ’70s who has retained the dogged integrity of that heady era, needs name-stars to make his work the way he wants to—i.e.: meticulously designed (by Jack Fisk), gorgeously photographed (by Emmanuel Lubezki), and wildly expensive compared to most films this idiosyncratic—and, though he recently managed to draw from Brad Pitt the finest performance of his career, it isn’t easy to find handsome mainstream actors sensitive to his style and its pitfalls. Enter Ben Affleck, for all his PR problems a perfectly likable persona and an actor of talent—but not so great at transmitting complex emotions with only body language and a downturned jaw at his disposal. He mopes an awful lot in To the Wonder, as the Oklahoman environmental inspector who falls in love with an elfin, mercurial, exotically beautiful Frenchwoman (Olga Kurylenko), and, later, with an American (Rachel McAdams), who seems very down-to-earth, who rides horses and seems as comfortable in his expansive, architecturally dull Midwestern milieu as the Frenchwoman is oppressed by it. In The Tree of Life, The New World and The Thin Red Line, Malick used women as idealized figures of beauty and consolation. In To the Wonder, by contrast, the women seem seem far more developed (and more interestingly embodied), and the male lead feels vaguely drawn. Meanwhile, the landscapes these characters inhabit are reliably evocative, an element that should be regarded as the content of the movie as much the story itself. I should mention that there is also a supplementary narrative thread involving a priest, played by Javier Bardem. Bardem’s passages are superfluous, a little wonky and perfectly in keeping with Malick’s cosmology.
What to do with a film like To the Wonder? It is seriously flawed. It is also crafted with a level of editorial expressionism, an attention to texture and rhythm and awe, that surpasses that of nearly everything else out there. I must be a true believer, because to my estimation any Terrence Malick film, even a seriously flawed one, is still a more wondrous cinematic experience than most. But even if you’re not a believer, even if you’re not easily seduced by this succession of twirling skirts, honey-dipped sunsets, bodies clinging, struggling or wandering, terrains both arid and damp, whispered confessions and visions of splendour, I dare say that, if you’ve ever been plunged into vertigo by love, if you’ve ever taken a chance on a life with someone who defies your set notions of how to live, if you’ve ever wondered how love can be so capricious, how you can feel such overwhelming desire for more than one person, then To the Wonder may captivate you. Okay, parts of it may. This simplest of story’s insights don’t come through exchanges of dialogue or elaborate dramatic turns but, rather, through the suggestive powers of confluence, the way that image and sound and ideas and faces mingle and blur. The film feels like a dance, one that stumbles here and there, like a deluge of emotions and sensations that can be felt acutely in passing but never held onto in any permanent way. So the corny title is also accurate. To the Wonder invites us to surrender to it, to wonder at love’s fleetingness and grandeur, even as it invites us to sniff at its pretensions and unfulfilled ambitions. Which of those two actions would you prefer to take on?