Almost no one is going to see To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s newest film, winner of last year’s Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. That is sad, as Malick is unique in American cinema. Expectations were high after his stunning 2011 The Tree of Life, which was the only thing close to a masterpiece that year. That film reached, generally successfully, higher and to a more grand purpose than any film that year, and would have succeeded except for the appearance of Sean Penn and some dinosaurs. But what worked in that film—the acting, the breathtaking cinematography—is what doesn’t work here.
The usual Malick concerns are present; beauty, nature, love, faith, life on this planet. He is officially one of cinema’s great poets, and not just visually. His films are genuinely beautiful without ever being precious. He reminds us continually that we live on—nay, are a part of—a strikingly beautiful world. He touches on issues of life that are achingly real and profound at the same time.
But what succeeded in Tree of Life fails here. Malick’s sweeping camerawork came at the narrative in that film from an angle and with sweeping motions that could have segmented the story, but instead filled the story with grace as it slid past and circled around a connected set of actions. In To the Wonder, we have a meditation on love, hate, loss and faith. In the “love/hate/loss” story, we have Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko as Neil and Marina, lovers who meet in Paris, move to America, and find that Neil can’t commit, or go deep enough in love, or something. For a while, the camerawork has a similar relationship with the story as in Tree of Life, and it appears for a while that the cinematographic approach might work here. But after a while, so little happens that instead of a strong story, we end up with a series of poses by the actors with an airy voiceover telling us what Marina is thinking and feeling. Marina almost twirls enough throughout to keep it all moving, but Affleck, a first-rate director, is more often than not a limited actor (high point: Hollywoodland) and seems as if he’s given little to do beyond looking and walking like a strong and typically American male. His lumbering recalls George O’Brien’s in Sunrise, with none of the poetry. Affleck has difficulty portraying the inner life of his characters, and it’s deadly here. The scenes are always gorgeously photographed, but they eventually break down into bits and pieces barely connected by a whispery voiceover.
Rachel McAdams appears in the middle of this story as Jane, who is as solid as Marina is light. The visual metaphors are almost overwhelming—Jane is solid, realistic, and quite unbelievably in love with Neil, all represented by heavy boots and land, land, land. Marina, on the other hand, is water, water, water—flowing, ever moving, and the opposite of Jane. Jane’s personal history is the occasion for the strongest Biblical reference—Romans 8:28—which is at least dropped into the discussion if not explored. It’s both tantalizing and a missed opportunity for a film that seeks to move beyond the depths and shadows of love and loss into “the larger issues.”
Shoehorned narratively into a connection with all this is the story that addresses those larger issues, albeit in the context of the personal faith struggle of Javier Bardem’s Father Quintanta. Quintana is dutiful and does good works for disadvantaged people, but can’t seem to find the presence of God in all his actions. Malick here is the warm and heartfelt first cousin to Ingmar Bergman and his similar concerns in his oeuvre, except that Bergman’s cool, numbed, intellectual concerns and meditations are replaced here with a more individual, heartfelt and vulnerable struggle. To his great credit, Malick cites Scripture with intelligence and without irony, which alone sets him apart from nearly all other mainstream Hollywood filmmakers. The film also has a lovely moment where a Pentecostal character does his best to demonstrate to Quintana how he himself feels the presence of God, and he rapturously speaks in tongues in an ebullient and reverent moment that may be unprecedented in current American cinema. Malick may be the one major director, with all his obvious doubts and concerns, who has a clue about what Christianity might actually entail and what the Scriptures might suggest.
Malick is clearly still exploring his own life (the plot line has several similarities to his own life) through his art. Yet he has been taking the occasion to also explore issues of human connection and the meaning, place and workings of faith. For that alone, even apart from the stunning beauty of his art and the striking audacity of his reach, Malick remains relevant, significant, and worthy of much more attention than he is being paid.