Terrence Malick has often been considered a genius, but never a prolific filmmaker. After his 1978 film Days of Heaven, he took two decades off before returning with The Thin Red Line. In fact, including 2011 Best Picture nominee The Tree of Life, he made only five feature films in 33 years. But his rate of filmmaking is changing starting with To the Wonder, the first of four Malick movies due out in the next couple years.
Viewers of The Tree of Life generally fell into two camps: There were those who, like me, thought it a grand, ambitious masterpiece, bravely exploring the big questions of life, the universe and everything through the microcosm of a dysfunctional small-town Texas family in the 1950s. And there were those who found it painfully dull and obscenely pretentious.
This much is certain: If you hated it, To the Wonder isn't for you.
That's because To the Wonder barely functions as a narrative film, though there is a story. Malick uses the medium almost as a blank canvas, painting emotional portraits of the way humans respond to intangible things: the emotions we share with others, the natural world around us, our belief, or lack thereof, in a higher power. It's all about the wonder in life, and it probably goes without saying that, as in all of Malick's films, there are many shots of trees.
There's also very little dialogue. The sentiments expressed are often done in Malick's stylistic voice-over, with dialogue that's representative of larger themes than the specific ones shown on screen.
The story is almost superfluous to what Malick explores, but here goes: Neil (Ben Affleck), an American traveling in Paris, meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a whirling dervish of a free spirit to his stolid Spartan. Marina and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) return with him to Oklahoma, where they move into a generic subdivision that's, in every way, a long distance from Paris.
It's bland and dull, polluted with corporate filth (Neil's an environmental inspector) and lacking any solid history. The community is made up of haves and have-nots, and everything feels sour, including Neil and Marina's relationship, which curdles over time.
Marina returns to France when her visa expires, and Neil takes up with an old classmate, Jane (Rachel McAdams), who's damaged goods. The man who watches all this happen is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest whose sermons are sparsely attended and who's losing his faith. He's melancholy, too incapacitated by his own crisis to help his suffering parishioners.
It should be said that the only way we know any of these names is via the credits. The characters' individuality isn't all that important to Malick, though what they're experiencing certainly is. You see, that's what Malick is all about: tackling the horrific tragedy that is the human condition, the artist's most noble pursuit.
Teaming up again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick frames his movie in such an unusual manner: The characters are almost never the true focus of what's happening, and soft lighting gives the film the feel of being watched through gossamer.
Initially, I was put off by this film, but it's clung to me ever since. The disconnect we feel with his characters is, I believe, intentional, though it makes for a challenging experience. Malick isn't interested in trying to win us over; he's just trying to make art that is, at the very least, truthful.