To the Wonder is the first Terrence Malick film I've seen that has not elicited an immediate, coherent reaction out of me. I've needed two viewings and plenty of reading and thinking to synthesize my feelings about it and solidify that thing we tend to call an opinion. My initial naïve assumption was that this could mean one of two things: Malick is either moving into uncharted territory and creating something that's inherently difficult to grapple with or his vision is unclear, malformed, and incomplete. Now, I think it's more accurate to confess that the film is somewhere in the middle, or that it occupies a little bit of both positions. In the process of watching To the Wonder, I have an evolving relationship with it. One moment I'm enthralled, the next I'm bored or annoyed. The film shifts repeatedly from the sublime to the banal, from the sensual to the rigid, from the liberated to the clichéd, and from the modestly evocative to the deadeningly symbolic. How to reconcile these feelings?
There's a bit in It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, Phillippe Grandrieux's latest film, where he and Japanese director Masao Adachi discuss the world of sensations and the world of ideas, two warring concepts that the filmmakers agree must be carefully managed in the process of making cinema. My sense is that the wobbliness of To the Wonder speaks to the fact that Malick is battling with the world of ideas and the world of sensations. On the one hand, the film is the floatiest, least grounded that Malick has made; unlike The Tree of Life, The New World, and The Thin Red Line – which are framed by the creation of the universe, the founding of America, and the American involvement in World War II, respectively – To the Wonder lacks a readily identifiable structural backbone, and it allows itself total editorial freedom as a result. On the other hand, the film can't let go of theme, structure, and narrative entirely. At its worst, it is encumbered by these formalities.
Because the film is so averse to establishing any kind of traditional conflict/resolution structure, I will not discuss the plot as such but rather simply describe, chronologically, what happens in the film. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are in love in Paris. Neil invites Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to America. The unofficial family settles into a slick contemporary home in a homogenized rural neighborhood of Bartlesville, Oklahoma surrounded by fields of golden wheat. They luxuriate in their new surroundings, but alienation gradually sets in, and when Marina's visa expires, she and her daughter must return to Paris. Neil reconnects with a plain Jane named, conveniently, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina, having temporarily lost Tatiana to her estranged ex-husband, grows frustrated and claustrophobic in her urban environment and longs for the space and comfort of Oklahoma. Neil falls in and out of love with Jane. Marina returns to Oklahoma and marries Neil. They cherish their time alone together. Suddenly, fissures start to show. Marina has a motel affair with a skull-tattooed handyman. Neil erupts in anger. The two hesitantly forgive one another. In the midst of all of this, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Bartlesville's exiled priest, stalks the periphery of the central throughline attempting to alleviate a crisis of faith by engaging with the town's disenfranchised.
Already in this hopefully neutral description of events in the film, schemas crop up. The humility and sanctity of the rural environment is posed against the noise and chaos of city life. A brunette is associated with sophistication, worldliness, and unpredictability while a blonde is regarded as innocent, unpretentious, and emotionally open. Poor, disabled, and working-class types are called upon to enlighten the gorgeous movie stars at the heart of the film (at one point, Malick even resorts, disappointingly, to the magical negro convention). Parallels are drawn between the tests of love and the tests of faith. Ideas proliferate. In the Tree of Life, such dichotomies and stereotypes were (I think) self-consciously employed as naïve markers for understanding the world that were to be gradually dismantled over the course of the film's loose bildungsroman structure. The problem with To the Wonder is that it lacks such unifying motivation. Instead, it relies on these organizing frameworks to jerry-rig a sense of coherence and structure on complex reality, perhaps because Malick can't let go of the philosophical assumption that the world is inherently charged with meanings, rather than something messy, formless, and uncontrolled. For all his openness to diverse viewpoints, it is this abiding faith in larger meaning that distinguishes Malick. Even The Tree of Life, a film that relentlessly scrutinized various philosophical approaches to life (nature vs. grace, determinism, free will, solipsism), concluded with a vision of harmony that implied eternal closure to existential disorder.
Given this line of thinking, it's no surprise that the film is at its best during moments of narrative renewal, when Malick, presented with new events or characters, reverts to the ecstatic lyrical instincts that have always been his forté. For instance, the beginning of the film. From its first word ("Newborn," uttered by Kurylenko over a black screen) to the moments when Marina and her daughter get homesick (it's difficult to point to a specific scene within the film's radical montage-heavy, dialogue-light sprawl), To the Wonder is a spectacular impressionistic montage of twirling bodies, tender glances, flowing streams, ravishing nature vistas, and stealthily mumbled story hints. I'd rank it as one of the most visually evocative stretches of cinematic mood-building in Malick's oeuvre, and it certainly has plenty of competition. The camera rarely stops moving (mimicking Kurylenko's ballerina-like gestures), and each cut continues a rhythm established in a previous shot. A similarly expressive sequence comes at roughly the film's halfway point when Jane is introduced after an unexpected black screen chapter marker. Until Marina soon re-enters the film, Malick crafts a delicate relationship between Neil and Jane that is relayed – like that of Neil and Marina in the beginning of the film – entirely through a fluid choreography between camera and performers. Jane's bright red dress gleaming against her golden surroundings, Emmanuel Lubezki's camera nearly scraping the ground as it glides through thickets of wheat to watch Affleck and McAdams coil around one another, a herd of stoic buffalo captured from an intimate distance at magic hour – this stuff is Malick's wheelhouse.
Unfortunately, the film seems hesitant to put all of its stock in such moments. Instead, it shifts regularly from the level of poetry to the level of discourse, and often this shift is cued by Javier Bardem. Incorporated as little more than a motif to forward Malick's ideas about the trials of love and faith in the modern world, Bardem's considerable acting chops are relegated to the background so that he can trudge wearily around dilapidated sections of town, recite stilted meditations on the higher pursuit of love in both the church and in voice-over, and dispassionately engage with inarticulate death-row inmates, amounting to a caricature of the angsty, self-doubting spiritual guide. The main issue with his misguided inclusion is that despite its effort to expand upon the romantic crests and falls of Neil, Marina, and Jane, it only simplifies, minimizes, and sucks the life out of them at every step of the way. The energy, emotion, and momentum sustained during the film's romantic passages is stalled, if not entirely drained, whenever Bardem shows up on screen to stalk another dirty apartment or hear out another pleading vagrant.
Lubezki argues in an American Cinematographer interview that these segments with Bartlesville townsfolk help bolster the film's sense of verisimilitude, that through them "the whole community becomes part of the production," which may be somewhat apt, but Malick's no Robert Gardner. His filmmaking tunes in to specificity only to reflect back on something general. The cast of locals that populate the periphery of the central drama only matter insofar as they have some psychological impact on Bardem, and to a lesser extent Affleck and Kurylenko. It's troublesome because the film accomplishes so much more without the aid of supporting characters. The film's finest accomplishment is its melancholy evocation of past selves through its focus on unfurnished houses, unoccupied laundromats, quiet neighborhoods, and empty landscapes, all locations the characters pass through at one point or another. Returned to over and over in the film's loose, flowing montage, these impressions of emptiness, accumulating into one giant void, make To the Wonder the saddest movie Malick has made. The film's by-now-routine collage of whispery narration, this time uttered in a host of different languages, constantly reflects on this aura of loss, on the cognitive dissonance felt when entering an old, familiar space that has now been irrevocably altered by time. In this sense, despite the allegedly autobiographical nature of Affleck's character (Malick apparently had a similar on-and-off affair with a French woman), it is Marina who seems to emerge as the film's heart and soul. Moving around against her will repeatedly throughout the narrative and becoming separated from her loved ones, she is in constant exile, experiencing a profound fragmentation of self that likely explains her moody behavior in the presence of the aloof Neil.
What I'm talking about here is sensations. In cinema, sensations are difficult to express in a non-verbal manner, but Malick has always shown an uncanny knack for it (To the Wonder suggests him further honing this skill). The thing is that, as rational human beings, we so often fall back on structures through which to impose a sense of order on sensations, and Malick, having embarked upon his most free-form experiment yet in sensory impressionism, is privy to this impulse. Witness, for instance, the way Marina's aforementioned feelings of dislocation are reduced in a third-act instance of infidelity wherein Marina, hitherto a typically Malickian saintly figure, touches the skull tattoo on the chest of her john. The tattoo is a symbol of danger and transgression, making it blatantly clear that she has lost contact with her core identity. Or the way Marina's brief Skype chat with Tatiana through her MacBook Pro immediately symbolizes contemporary disconnect. These are ideas, and they are what continually weigh down what is often times Malick's bravest, most sincere feature yet. If Malick's previous period pieces offered milieus which placed him in a constant mode of discovery, seeking something new and beautiful in everything, To the Wonder is a film by a man straining to grasp "meaning" in a chaotic modern environment when in fact the meaning is already there in front of his camera.