Watching a Terrence Malick movie means being reminded that we live in nature, among the trees and other animals, with the heavens as a canopy. This should be a given, but it’s something people take entirely for granted—both in the movies and in everyday life. Just as a building blocks out the sun, drama creates its own kind of obstructive architecture, denying the context of the natural world while burrowing down in human conflicts. Though man vs. nature is a common theme in many movies, Malick isn’t interested in attempts to conquer nature so much as he wants to detail the way people choose to live within it—often in resistance and violation.
Until now, Malick’s films applied these ruminations to the past: The ’50s of his youth (The Tree Of Life) and the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree (Badlands); the battle of Guadalcanal (The Thin Red Line); the Great Depression (Days Of Heaven); the founding of Jamestown (The New World). To The Wonder, his first wholly contemporary work, takes place in the fallen world of Sonics and Econo-Lodges, and cookie-cutter ranch houses near power lines and toxic groundwater. It all sounds like hell on earth, like an aging director cursing the modern, but Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, keep the camera tilted toward the sky’s colorful expanses, and suddenly even a hick shithole looks like God’s country.
And yet, as gorgeous as To The Wonder is, Malick again turns his attention to humans—“characters” is a stretch to describe the abstract creations here—who can’t find spiritual sustenance in all this useless beauty. His views on love and marriage have less to do with how compatible two people are with each other than how they choose to interact with the world around them. Malick made that explicit in The Tree Of Life, which contrasted a gentle mother (Jessica Chastain) on the “path of grace” with a forbidding, violent father (Brad Pitt) on the “path of nature.” And that same dynamic surfaces again in To The Wonder, but in a contemporary setting that feels alternately familiar, exalted, and alienating.
The film opens in paradise before it’s lost, as an absurdly attractive young couple in love—an American played by Ben Affleck and a Frenchwoman played by Olga Kurylenko—climb to the gardens atop a European castle and splash barefoot in the low-tide sea floor below. Little is said between them, with Malick continuing his move toward minimizing dialogue and telling his stories through voiceover, body language, and a constantly roving camera. Kurylenko does most of the talking in past-tense narration, which has the effect of clouding the relationship even in its most blissful moments. Kurylenko and her daughter follow Affleck, an environmental inspector, to his home in small-town Oklahoma, a huge adjustment made harder by Affleck’s emotional remoteness.
As Kurylenko and Affleck drift away from each other, the latter into the arms of an old flame (Rachel McAdams), Malick cuts away to the tangentially related journey of disillusioned priest Javier Bardem, who has a harder time than his parishioners in communing with God. His vocation brings him into the homes of the poor and the wretched, and it shakes his faith—at least insofar as he ever had any. Bardem shares a scene or two with Affleck, but mainly just to establish them as occupying the same cinematic universe. He exists more as the roving conscience of the film, like the crumbling bridge between man and transcendence.
Bardem’s dilemma is the central one in To The Wonder, and Malick does his best to make it ours, too. The film can’t be judged by the usual metrics—it has figures rather than characters, movements rather than acts—because what it’s really attempting to do is give expression to the ineffable and show us something beautiful, reminding us that we live in a world that’s larger than ourselves, and crafted by that invisible hand. Pitt resists it in The Tree Of Life, Affleck resists it here, and mankind carves up the earth and violates it. (Affleck’s profession has him presiding over the slicing and dicing.) But there’s great poignancy in the effort to find that connection—Bardem has a devastating bit of narration toward the end that could double as a thesis statement for Malick’s career—and plenty of moments when the film is ecstatically beautiful.
Still, there’s no doubt that To The Wonder is a fans-only proposition, continuing Malick’s evolution (or devolution, for some) from the narrative grounding of Badlands to much more abstract, poeticized notions of the human condition. The performances are mostly physical, more modeling than acting, and there’s approximately 10,000 percent more naïf-like frolicking here than would normally be expected of workaday Oklahomans. The symbolic blankness of the characters can be a distraction, and what words do escape their lips tend to clank in their defiance of naturalism. (A sequence where a close friend from France visits Kurylenko, dancing around inanely and making her problems explicit to anyone within earshot, may be the worst of Malick’s career.)
To The Wonder invites mocking and derision—and has received plenty of it at film festivals in Venice and Toronto—but Malick persists in refining his style to the barest essentials of sound and image, caring little whether he’s out of step with the times. As a result, there may be some significant distance between the experiences and actions of those onscreen and those in the audience, but Malick is reaching for essential truths about how all of us yearn for happiness and transcendence, and often find it difficult to reach. We don’t often notice the brilliant, red-streaked sky behind the Sonic joint—not when the chili-cheese tots command so much attention.