I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I actually kinda liked To the Wonder. Sillier and with less narrative momentum than any other Terrence Malick movie (and that’s saying something), if there was ever a Malick movie I wasn’t going to like, this should have been it. It’s much less substantial than The Tree of Life and its characters and their stories (whatever you can glean from them, anyway) are not nearly as interesting as those from Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, mostly because there’s a lot less at stake and the film’s without historical mystery—To the Wonder, unlike those others, is set in present day. But Malick’s hallmarks are still there. I don’t think you go to a Malick movie for its story; in any case, Malick’s two most recent films indicate he has less use for story now more than ever. (You knew what motivated the characters in Days of Heaven, but don’t even bother trying to figure that out here.) I think you go to his movies go for their images and their scale. Malick is not so much interested in humanity as he is in life, and yes, to Terrence Malick, music and old churches and trees and grass and wheat and all that nature shit (and, as revealed in To the Wonder, Sonic drive-thrus) are just as beautiful, fragile, and alive as you and me. He’s so sincere in thinking this that his movies, To the Wonder included, are largely devoid of pretension—the most common criticism directed Malick’s way—because he’s so uncynical. (The criticism should cut the other way. Malick’s unrepentant sincerity means that his movies risk unintentional comedy or naïveté.) To the Wonder is a smaller and more impatient movie than its enigmatically profound voice-overs would suggest, but it’s beautiful enough for you to tune out its flightier moments.
Be sure to read carefully as I recount the minutely detailed plot of To the Wonder. Ben Affleck is living in Paris and dating a European woman played by Olga Kurylenko. The two of them saunter around the rainy Parisian cityscape and, in an impressive visual display, make a day trip out to Mont Saint Michel, a dramatically awesome location that matches the movie’s ambitious emotional scale. Soon after, they’ve absconded along with the Kurylenko character’s daughter from a previous relationship, Tatiana (Tatiana is the only character whose name I actually remember) to Oklahoma where Affleck works as…some guy who analyzes mud toxins, and Kurylenko spends her days dancing around their home and the surrounding expanse. What seems like a happy relationship turns sour, and Kurylenko leaves for Europe, while Affleck engages in a brief fling with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. Kurylenko returns, but then things fall apart once again; Kurylenko has an affair herself with the actor who plays Skinny Pete in Breaking Bad (don’t worry, he’s not Walt’s blue crystal here). Also, Javier Bardem is a priest who doubts God’s existence.
Malick’s movies are evocative and moody rather than descriptive. As you can guess, the plots of all of his films only exist at the surface level; there’s no need to pay attention any more closely to the story than what I’ve just outlined. What’s more, Malick’s recent works have increasingly drifted in this direction: If you thought nothing happened in The Tree of Life, I don’t have much to say other than “Prepare yourself.” Drama in To the Wonder comes from the locations, the lighting, and the classical music, which is why my failure to remember the names of virtually every character has no bearing on what I thought of the film as a whole. Seemingly everybody compared The Tree of Life to 2001, with reason, and Wonder is even more of an heir to Kubrick’s classic* in that the dialogue is completely inconsequential and the totality of the visual and auditory experience (the music plays isn’t a traditional score, per se, so much as Malick selecting pieces—original or not—that match the transcendent ambience he wishes to create) elevates the threadbare narrative. If Malick is taking his films in a more abstract and austere direction, it’s been suggested that “the symphonic form” has heavily influenced Malick’s evolution; Bilge Ebiri of New York thinks that To the Wonder is literally a ballet. This reading makes a lot of sense to me—it’s easy to describe The Tree of Life and To the Wonder as musical for no other reason than their non-stop use of orchestral cues, and Jesus does Kurylenko not stop spinning around. If that sounds hokey to you, well, it kind of is, and I’d say that any transcendence provided by To the Wonder comes from shots of empty suburban houses instead of Kurylenko sashaying through them.**
*No space exploration or Big Bang or dinosaurs in this one, sadly.
**Obligatory praise for Emmanuel Lubezki, who for my money is the best cinematographer working today and the person with a pulse most deserving of an Oscar; there’s still none on his mantle. He’s worked with Malick on his last three films and is also known for his association with Alfonso Cuarón on Y tu mamá también and my pick for the most ambitiously photographed movie of the last decade or so, Children of Men. And you wonder why I’m so fucking jazzed for Gravity.
Some of the hokeyness might derive from To the Wonder‘s being a smaller film than its Malickian forebears. As I mentioned, it’s a present-day story, so it feels less monumental than the arrival of the English at American shores (The New World) or World War II (The Thin Red Line). Its themes are smaller, too, than The Tree of Life, for there’s nothing about the characters or their relationships that opens the film up as an analogy to some macroscopic existential question; I guess Wonder is about Love and Beauty (no theme of Malick’s should be reduced to lowercase), but not much else. What’s interesting is that the effect of making a movie with themes so ephemeral is to give the images themselves greater resonance. So, we may be in suburban, recession-tainted Oklahoma following around some people we don’t really know, and Hey, there’s a Sonic! And an Econo Lodge! And a random strung-out yellow-toothed woman who wasn’t needed on the Breaking Bad lot!, but while these would be easy opportunities for Malick to condescend towards Oklahomans or indulge in ruin porn, he seems to be marveling that there’s beauty even in this.
Malick could’ve been more patient with his characters (McAdams’ appeared and disappeared, while Bardem’s was wholly unconnected to the rest of the film), but I’m willing to live with it if it’s true that these characters are dancing out their emotions rather than verbally expressing them. Thirty seconds after McAdams expresses her affection for Affleck their romance comes to a tempestuous end, but a gorgeous shot of McAdams and Affleck sitting on the roof of their SUV in the midst of a horde of bison spoke volumes more about who those characters are than their hushed and abrupt words of affection, lust, and contempt towards each other. Like many of Malick’s characters, these are quiet, curious and solitary human beings lost in a romantic natural wilderness. It’s one thing to write them off as thinly drawn but another to stare at these outlines of personhood within the context of Nature’s grander display. That’s just another way of saying that there’s more to Malick’s movies than the actors’ chiseled jaws or sending more despondent gazes towards the horizon than Jon Snow.
Cézanne, referring to his predecessor, is said to have remarked, “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!” I wouldn’t ascribe that backhanded compliment to all of Malick’s movies, but I think it aptly decribes To the Wonder, which is his first film that didn’t leave me slack-jawed with astonishment. There’s really nothing to be learned from To the Wonder; it’s more a wistfully pretty travelogue than anything else, but god damn it is it beautiful.