To The Wonder marks the first contemporaneously set drama from American filmmaker Terrence Malick. Over the course of his four-decade and six film long career the director has charted the landscape of America, with Days Of Heaven exploring the first act of the 20th century, The Thin Red Line examining the involvement of the country during the Second World War, and the 1950s set Badlands charting the notion of the celebrity murder spree, while The Tree Of Life placed a similar baby boomer period tale bookended by the birth and death of the Universe itself *. It is perhaps The New World though, Malick’s majestic 2005 retelling of the first wave of the colonisation of the Americas, that makes for the starkest comparison piece to the kind of tale at the centre of To The Wonder, with it’s story of a Parisian émigré (Olga Kurylenko) wandering the stark landscape of rural Oklahoma making for a hyper-cinematic take on the fish-out-of-water trope, albeit one in the vein of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, or Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. Charting notions of a loss of faith, and a loss of love that may not have ever been there, To The Wonder makes for an existential take on territory ordinarily the domain of the manipulative romantic drama.
The abstract narrative code honed by Malick on his post-1998 work comes full circle in To The Wonder, with a piece that almost wholly rejects traditional cinema storytelling conventions and language. It’s his most focussed film since Days Of Heaven, but such a simplistic description downplays the extent of the experimentation in other areas. Ambiguity reigns, and yet it’s a comforting ambiguity. Thoughts turn to works such as Alain Resnais’ early 1960s double-hander of Last Year At Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour, with their achingly romantic visions passing through a structural entity theoretically unfamiliar from the mainstream cinema. The film, which was shot using a combination of celluloid and digital photography, opens with a playful home movie, before the picture proper ‘snaps’ in to place. Unusually for the director, our first port of call is a land other than the USA, with Paris welcoming the viewer in the same way that it welcomes the film’s male protagonist (Neil, portrayed by Ben Affleck). Perhaps it’s simply the infinitely more relatable use of Paris as his canvas (relatable that is, compared to a historically-ground space in America, as per the rest of his movies), but there is something incredibly raw and moving about being placed within such a scenario.
To The Wonder also presents a central transcendental summation similar to that of it’s immediate predecessor, in that to achieve happiness one must, in a way, dismiss religion. Faith (in religion) is filtered via a parallel strand in which a priest (played by Javier Bardem) is coming to terms with his own place within the organised church. While it’s difficult to second-guess or predict the extra-textual intensions of a filmmaker like Malick, due to the incredibly private nature of the man’s relationship with his audience, if one were to take the liberty of applying such tactics with this movie then it would be upon focussing on the casting of the central male protagonist of Ben Affleck. There’s a neat bit of intertextuality in the decision to employ the heroic figure at the centre of Michael Bay’s Armageddon, a film concerned with it’s titular prophecy, as a man who is charged with tackling a very real threat to the world in which he (and in turn we, thanks to the films contemporary leaning) lives in, in the form of landslide management. The “real” world of the Oklahoma that plays home to To The Wonder is being destroyed by reasons unexplainable, while it’s made clear on a number of occasions that Affleck’s Neil is a man incapable of fixing a problem, be it in his marital affairs, his profession as a structural engineer, or a broken antique clock. The use of Affleck, and the associations one might hold with him, recalls the director’s employment of Brad Pitt in Tree Of Life. (It’s possible that therein also lies a relationship between the events of To The Wonder and the Old Testament end times of Tree Of Life, should one choose to believe that the films share the same cinematic universe.)
That a film from Terrence Malick is a visually satisfying exercise will nary come as a surprise to many, with the director’s regular post-millenial DoP Emmanuel Lubezki lensing the picture. From the hyper-real, almost extrasensory, pawing to beautifully patient representations of nature (the tide coming in at Mont Saint-Michel is particularly noteworthy) there is nary a doubt that this is very much a “Terrence Malick Picture”. Iconography of Americana steps in to the frame once the story reaches US shores, with perfectly composed shots of unlikely totems such as industrial machinery (which brings to mind Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces) and supermarkets clarifying that the contemporary is very much an affable match for Malick’s distinctive aesthetic. In one of the film’s most remarkable shots, an air-conditioning unit attached to the side of a house proves to be one of the wholly compulsive, while elsewhere it’s the paintings of Norman Rockwell that provide Malick with his over-riding visual tone. In a similar way to how the work of Edward Hopper informed his Days Of Heaven, the unassuming portraits of Rockwell provide a platform with which to play subversive for Malick’s representation of the modern world. Shotgun weddings presided over by prisoners bearing witness, the archetypical drive-in diner and the motel all form sequential reference points, with these outsider icons of Americana the natural home for a film concerned with the tale of a stranger in a strange land.
In keeping with this recurring notion of a “pure” cinematic approach, the breathless cut of the movie, which was achieved with the help of no less than five editors, combines to create a rich, all-consuming tapestry. Moments of relatable empathy follow scenes of intense conflict (see, the sequence in which Neil paces around his empty house, Marina having returned to Paris, or the way in which an aggressive sexual moment jumps to scenes of a funfair). It’s masterful work, if not at times beguiling, and serves to remind that Malick is one of the true greats of the American cinema.
*It’s worth noting that Tree Of Life does feature a section set in the contemporary now, but, apartment block and office aside, it’s a chapter set very much in a philosophical space that doesn’t resemble any familiar period.