(Terrence Malick, 2012)
Picking up the pace of his impressively dawdling, four decade-strong career, Terrence Malick makes a return to the big screen an uncharacteristic two years after simultaneously wowing disciples and furrowing the collected brows of his nascent detractors with the universe-spanning The Tree of Life (2011). Carrying across similar themes, To the Wonder (2012) makes more of an attempt to exemplify its director’s near-total abandonment of the churning cogs of narrative expectation and exoskeletons by appearing as a formless, abstract and majestic treatise of the loss of faith and the attainment and subsequent degradation of a forbidding love. As marvellous as Malick’s abilities are here at managing to make weightless visions of America look and feel both poetic and astoundingly trying, his sixth feature is both the former and latter adjective pushed to elegiac extremes; a melange of gliding images loosely packaged around parodic divisiveness in the form of a tale of windswept woe and whispering wallow.
Playing the protagonists – whose names are only revealed in a credits reveal of sorts, Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams embody that typical ‘Malickian’ personality: the semi-silent cypher for his quixotic existentialism, only here they swirl around desolate planes searching for answers and the clarification of passions and desires. Using Neil (Affleck) and Marina’s (Kurylenko) burgeoning romance as the fuel for the willowy story to play out, Malick envisages a sort of dateless Oklahoma suburb that is sparse and impersonal filled with nondescript houses whose doors are always open and whose inhabitants are almost constantly frolicking on the front lawn. Here the director’s most notable and enduring imagery – lost souls strolling through barren wheat fields – is once again used as explicit metaphor: the infinite intercut by translucent emptiness. Yet it is with such recognisable elements that the threat of self-parody seeps into every glorious frame and line reading (“I am my own experiment”, “Newborn, I open my eyes” etc.), and is exacerbated by character motivations and decisions expressed by spontaneous (and spontaneously captured) movement, specifically Kurylenko cavorting around in balletic wonderment.
While it’s reductive and simplistic to say Malick is just setting up exquisitely framed shots in order to find beauty in the natural, which is something he is both known for doing and doing well, it’s similarly easy to write off this technique as take-what-you-will laziness. Through Neil and Marina’s volatile romance by way of his fleeting tryst with McAdams’ Jane, Malick has clearly created something of a portrait of (Marina’s) mental illness and the boundaries of language and loyalty, yet his decision to don an intentionally distancing demeanour – not to mention interweaving the plot with Javier Bardem’s distractedly droll journeying priest – is puzzling and frustratingly enigmatic. If pushing spectatorial attentiveness to its limits is Malick’s intention, then To the Wonder is to the nonplussed an aimless and empty exercise in endurance. However, those that withstand the deliberate estrangement will find a dizzyingly edited peculiarity: a ponderous film that has the transcendent feeling of being about everything and nothing.