We often forget that the spoken word is not the only language of communication. There is body language and other visual cues that help us communicate, and Terrance Malick’s new film To the Wonder is very much a story told with such emphasis on the visual language. Malick has developed his style over many decades, and this effort relies so heavily on intense visuals, many of the most literate audience members will still have trouble finding a tangible connection to it. Yet, there is something to behold with this film, it tells a story in a form that is breaching the wall between narrative and experimental, but retains classicism that only a technically accomplished artist could manage. To the Wonder was completed rather quickly after Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, a strange occurrence since Malick is not known for quick delivery.
To the Wonder is next logical step after The Tree of Life in terms of technical direction and themes. Where Malick’s previous film expressed the dualities and grace and nature amongst a family in suburban Texas, To the Wonder places us firmly on the ground following the volatile relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) who convinces his girlfriend Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her pre-teen daughter to move with him back to America. Although, peaceful and delighted at the suburban, middle-American landscapes at first, both Marina and her daughter become detached from the new experience and each other. When Jane (Rachel McAdams) appears in Neil’s life, his relationship to Marina is relationship is tested, especially when her visa expires.
Not only are Neil and Marina reconsidering their lives together and their place in the world, the local priest (Javier Bardem) is struggling at his own church. What exactly he is struggling with is unknown, but the members of the church and even the custodians are aware of his unhappiness. Essentially, like Neil and Marina, this priest contemplates his commitment to his own marriage, the one to the church, and his sad-eyed expression shows a lingering unease in public service. These existential questions are nothing new in Malick’s work, but their contemporary placement makes them relevant, with divorce from marriage becoming a common occurrence and the troubles with Catholic scandals these past several years.
A foundational device in Malick’s previous films, even To the Wonder is light on the voice-overs, which are sensual and poetic as ever. Affleck and Kurylenko whisper rhetorical questions set to Deleuzian imagery that is nearly devoid of a specific time. We watch the couple frolic in fields, supermarkets, and their homes in love, but wander and contemplate their place during their moments alone. Neil is an environmental inspector and the scenes in which he trudges through muddy pits, ditches, and construction sites are appropriately darker with an ominous tone that contrasts to the ethereal beauty that exists in this small suburban town.
Retrospectively, Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, marks a new era for the director, one that is incredibly personal and autobiographical. Similarly to how his previous film had links to his childhood in Austin, Texas, To the Wonder has hints towards his marriage some years ago.
Malick has re-teamed with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki with a wildly dynamic wide-angle lens to offer a broad depth to the characters and their relationship to the camera. Not only is there more spatial recognition of the characters in their environment, the wide-angle also helps distort the picture, perhaps to provide a more accurate depiction of mundane American life; one of both disappointment and privilege. The camera’s wide-angle lens even makes extreme close-ups an event to behold, particularly during Neil’s most distraught moments caught in the claustrophobic locales of their suburban home. The cinematography is augmented but Hanan Townshend’s sweeping score that likens itself to Alexandre Desplat’s score from The Tree of Life.
It must be hard for some to stare into scenes in To the Wonder, unable to get a sense of plot out of a single shot or sequence. Yet, Malick’s films have never been obtuse, and his form of expression developed over many decades has taken his work to even more dynamic and cosmic depictions of humanity’s relationship to its environment, both natural and artificial, man versus nature. America tends to be that battleground, where a New World of opportunity stomped over what took nature millennia to evolve and create. That is where Malick comes in, by depicting man’s inability to safely integrate into a rapidly evolving modern environment; he is one of the few that finds both the beauty and the ugliness in such a constant battle.