To the Wonder: Terrence Malick's Vision of Heaven and Hell in the Present Day

The acclaimed director's critically panned film focuses on America in the now, not the past—which is a drastic change for Malick, but not a bad one.
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To the Wonder, the marvelous new film by writer/director Terrence Malick, marks a departure for the famously reclusive director in that it comes just two years after his last film, The Tree of Life. Malick has been known to go two decades between features, so the quick production and release of Wonder—as well as the fact that he currently has three (!) films in post-production—seems to signify some sort of shift in his storied career, and the film bears that out. On the surface, Malick is employing his usual style of montage and voice-over narration but in a new, contemporary setting that makes Wonder feel like his most vital work in years.

With each film, Malick's thematic motifs become clearer. His eternal subject is the perfect triangle of love, faith, and nature—points of transcendence that his characters often reach for but never fully grasp. But though To the Wonder explores the same themes as Malick's celebrated earlier works and with the same style, it's getting mostly panned by critics. The film premiered to some disappointment at the Venice Film Festival, and that negativity followed it to subsequent screenings. The opinion of one critic at the Toronto Film Festival that it was "minor Malick" seems to have stuck. Others have noted that the film "hit too close to home" and that, unlike in previous Malick films, "the stakes feel smaller."

The problem for these critics might be that Malick has finally cast his critical gaze—always until now reserved for examining America's past—on the present day, making the film scan as more disposable. The movie does diverge significantly from his past work in large part because of its contemporary setting, but I'd argue that's a good thing. Malick has challenged himself not to look backwards, and To the Wonder is both about and for a different generation of Americans. Those who grew up with Malick are right to feel a bit left out, although they are missing a fascinating shift in the great director's career.

As the film opens, Neil (Ben Affleck), an American businessman, has fallen in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a young, beautiful Parisian, on his trip to Europe. These scenes bring Neil and Marina to Mont St. Michel—known as the "Wonder of the West"—where their love takes on ancient proportions under the spell of the island's history and natural beauty. Enchanted by the moment, Neil invites Marina and her daughter to live with him in Oklahoma, and we are suddenly transported to modern day, where contemporary American culture plays the role of the oppressor previously occupied in the Malick oeuvre by war (The Thin Red Line), colonialism (The New World), and abusive fathers (The Tree of Life).

The movie does diverge significantly from his past work in large part because of its contemporary setting, but I'd argue that's a good thing. 'To the Wonder' is both about and for a different generation of Americans.

In each of his films, there is an innocent, child-like narrator to guide us through the interplay of his recurring elements. In Badlands, it was Sissy Spacek's naïve American teenager, and in The Thin Red Line, it was Jim Caviezel's runaway WWII soldier. Marina is the requisite innocent in To the Wonder. Like many Europeans, she and her daughter are at first seduced by America—they are amazed at the endless rows of canned goods at a supermarket. But her acceptance of suburban culture is not to be taken too seriously; Marina is a woman without roots, and she mostly behaves like a child playing hooky, running through the wheat fields and licking the rain off a tree branch. Still, it is not long before the culture whose novelty at first fascinates her reveals its dark underbelly.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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