A common criticism that’s been levied against Terrence Malick’s latest film To the Wonder is that the famed auteur behind Badlands, Tree of Life, and The Thin Red Line tries too hard to make the audience feel some sort of emotional reaction to the material. While it’s hard to use the old chestnut “you have to be on the director’s wavelength,” it’s harder to dismiss that this latest and possibly most outwardly obtuse effort (on a surface level) might be his most personal film yet.
And to say it’s obtuse and personal is to say that Malick has tapped into something deep here that not many other filmmakers have. He’s trying to explain the feelings of a love so deep it borders on the irrational. Not necessarily the ethereal, which many people could easily write off any Malick film as being. It’s a movie about feeling, and I think the worst that can really be said about a film this gorgeous is that those who haven’t experienced such a feeling will probably get the least mileage out of the film.
The plot, such as it were, involves a couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) for whom the Honeymoon is literally over. They have a great blue collar life in suburban Oklahoma, but a rift has developed that’s potentially unpatchable. He still pines for a former lover and friend (Rachel McAdams), and she seems to wonder why the love they once had has been replaced at times with an often quiet animosity and sense of regret.
It shifts through time quite a bit in a non-linear fashion, but it’s not really needed. Affleck barely says a single word throughout the entire film, and priest character played very wonderfully by Javier Bardem has more dialogue and voiceover than Affleck. The Bardem character would feel trucked in from a completely different film if one weren’t familiar with the filmmaker’s previous work. It’s clearly an attempt to tie the spiritual kind of love with something far more otherworldly, but it was a concept explored far more thoroughly in his last film.
Yes, Malick certainly has a love for landscapes and a sometimes risible desire to include shots of his leading females twirling like a tornado threatening to tear up the landscape around them, but it’s never anything less than a singularly original vision that no other filmmakers has ever been able to replicate. He uses his actors as tools in a kind of staged pastoral, and not necessarily for what they can bring the role. Everyone here is great, but this isn’t a film that’s written or acted. It’s very much a film that gets by sheerly on the whim and will of the person in the director’s chair.
If there’s one thing that Malick has been able to convey better than any other American filmmakers, it’s finding meaning in the utterly irrational. War, crime, creation, manifest destiny. These are all things that make no logical sense when you think about them. Malick just has a very specific way of talking about them. There’s possibly nothing in life more irrational and impossible to explain than love. It’s something that you instantly identify the moment it happens or the moment you see it in action.
Love can’t ever be defined FOR someone. It’s something figured out and felt on its own. This might be why so many have balked at praising this film, but there’s something inherently beautiful when anyone with this level of talent and skill expressing what he feels about love himself. In that respect, To the Wonder amounts to the least of all of Malick’s films in terms of how single minded it is, but also the most emotionally rewarding for those who can relate to the material.