Terrence Malick’s methodology over the past few years has entered an enterprise of poetic lyricism where traditional narrative constraints succumb to spiritual headiness. At their hearts, films like The Thin Red Line and The New World maintained a liberal and sparsely plotted sensibility that were akin to Malick’s first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. But beginning with The Tree of Life and continuing in To the Wonder, Malick tilts his camera in favor of a more enigmatic and sensual experience. The results have been contentious with devout followers to the church of Malick dismissing his latest work as too sparse and empty. When compared to the grandiosity of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is small – though there few films comparable in scope and ambition as The Tree of Life. Smale-scaled Malick remains a remarkable effort and in To the Wonder’s case, it’s an illustrious visage that embarks to tell a simple story of lover’s plight and the realities that are difficult to acknowledge.
The hushed whispers of The Tree of Life’s Texans are exchanged for the more striking and somehow more immediate whispers of a Parisian. Olga Kurylenko narrates most of To the Wonder’s gorgeously shot opening sequences. Swirling movements on behalf of both Kurylenko and her costar Ben Affleck coalesce with Malick’s own visual presentation. The fluidity in which his camera moves proposes the prospect that Malick is operating with a performing arts’ sensibility, emphasizing perpetual movement. Despite the minimal dialogue and stream-of-consciousness movement, the images provide a clear narrative unfolding – an American man visits Paris and strikes a relationship with a woman. The two, along with the woman’s child, return to America. The ups-and-downs of their relationship juxtapose with a local priest’s (Javier Bardem) crisis of faith.
Malick marks the two parallel narratives by keeping in line with the tonal punctuations found in both. In Bardem’s narrative, images of the destitute populate the screen. Meanwhile, the ups and downs of the picture’s central relationship provide visuals of stunning clarity though are veiled by Affleck and Kurylenko’s internalized emotions. Malick gives the audience a character cut from a spiritual cloth that sees the world as it is: Bardem’s priest character is one of Malick’s more interesting conceptions as it is someone conflicted by his inability to confront God while succumbing to his own emotional duress. He views a world of growing decadence and aspires for truth. Meanwhile, the lovelorn couple at To the Wonder’s center is inept in their understanding of the world. Affleck’s character, functioning as a Malick-proxy, is conflicted by the foreign and practical. Lost and in disarray, the dance-trance that defines Affleck and Kurylenko’s characters refutes much of the dismal reality found in Bardem’s narrative. The juxtaposition between the two perspectives is hardly juxtaposition at all, as Malick’s editing and movement inspires something close to a fugue state. But it’s something that unites the film thematically and inspires something greater in terms of overarching meaning behind the lush imagery.
To the Wonder will not reach the acclaim that was bestowed on The Tree of Life. It’s in perpetual freeform and is being misinterpreted as too personal. But there are, like in all of Malick’s films, universal truths about love, spirituality, and the search and rejection of truth. The formal control and fluid movement of images on display are worth a viewing To the Wonder. With every passing picture, Malick is establishing himself as the most visionary contemporary director working today.