The greatest artists are usually the most polarizing. This is certainly no less true in film, where legendary figures like Michael Haneke and Jean Luc Godard are loathed as much as they are revered. Terrence Malick is one of those luminaries of the medium, the last bastion of the second golden age of American art cinema. The other icons of his generation are either no longer with us or have left their days of maverick artistry behind them, but Malick never stops challenging himself or his audience. Each successive film has plunged further and further into fragmented abstraction in a seemingly insatiable desire to evolve. Enter To the Wonder, a startlingly challenging film despite its inherent simplicity. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that there’s nothing quite like it in the history of the moving picture –– except, of course, another Malick film.
Neil (Ben Affleck), an American environmental inspector traveling in Europe, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian divorcee raising her young daughter alone, meet in Paris and fall in love. But their decision to move to Oklahoma together proves premature, as their once scintillating romance grows terribly cold. When Marina’s visa expires, she is forced to move back to Paris with her daughter, and Neil eventually meets and reconnects with an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams). But his new romance with her only lasts until he learns of Marina’s misfortunes. Nearly destitute and with her daughter now living with her father, Marina asks Neil to marry her so she can get her green card. Out of a sense of responsibility, he agrees, and she returns to Oklahoma to live a married life –– a decision they both come to regret.
Since emerging from a twenty year hiatus, Malick’s films have been remarkably vast in narrative scale. In comparison to his work since The Thin Red Line, To the Wonder would seem to evoke the simplicity of his early films of the 70s. But in something as outwardly mundane as a marriage on the rocks, Malick has created a film with immense stylistic and thematic ambition. Framing the romantic hardship between Neil and Marina is the crisis of faith suffered by the local priest (Javier Bardem), whose daily work exposes him to nothing but the lowest of human experiences. The infinite silence from the God whose word he’s been tasked to spread is mirrored in Neil’s own reticence; perhaps God, like Neil and others like him, cannot express their love in ways that can be easily understood. Or perhaps that love was never really there to begin with, and the ephemeral, haunting beauty of the world is just as devoid of meaning as a relationship that never had a leg to stand on.
These notions are constant threads in his work. Anyone familiar with his oeuvre would instantly recognize the theme of a search for meaning in a cruelly desolate yet stunningly beautiful world, and the visual methods he uses to express it: characters wreathed in natural light spilling from windows, diffused by cloth, refracted in water. Light is an old metaphor for Truth, but the manner in which he elegantly channels and limits light makes Truth resemble Moby Dick: something glimpsed, something sought, but the hunt for it often results in destruction. And yet, the sheer splendor of his imagery suggests that these doomed endeavors are precisely what Malick finds so worthy in humanity. Perhaps it is our willingness to endure tragedy for the hope of an answer to our deepest questions that defines the soul of our species, the thing that separates us from the rest of nature.
But all this musing exists in the gaping spaces of Malick’s narrative, a thing that ultimately proves too much for many audiences to bear. Like Haneke, Malick rarely shows you anything you want to know. But where Haneke eschews character history and psychological context to eliminate all distractions from the central horror he wants you to see, Malick does so to focus on the spaces in between important events. To the Wonder is built from fleeting memories where all else surrounding them have long been forgotten –– disjointed islands of past histories that are impossible to reconstruct beyond a shattered daydream. Important plot points are conveyed in a mere handful of words, never repeated. In the end, you will always be left with far more questions than answers, an experience many will find infuriating, baffling, or just plain boring.
This is exactly the sort of film one can expect from Malick; fans will not be disappointed, detractors will find no redemption, and newcomers aren’t likely to fall somewhere in between. But with a little bit of luck and patience, this film can be endlessly rewarding.