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.

Neil, an environmental engineer, seems stressed by a vague development at work; it involves some kind of pollutant in the water supply. He brings his stress home, where Marina is failing to live up to his American notions of female domesticity. The house is soon filled with tension. Eventually and without a clear reason ("Something is missing," her daughter whispers to her at one point), he allows mother and child to return to Paris without him, and he strikes up another relationship with an old flame (Rachel McAdams), who has recently been widowed.

Malick seems to have grasped something about a generation of young adults who have not yet grown up. Neil has never learned to control his emotions, and his stoicism is punctuated by fits of rage; Marina's childishness is at first intoxicating but soon becomes a burden on their relationship. These characters push and pull against each other over the course of the film—and Malick's camera is in constant motion around them—so that the struggle never ends. As they seek to transcend their material existences—whether by climbing the steps of an ancient monastery or a cheap Oklahoma motel—their perpetual efforts to self-actualize should resonate deeply with a cohort of young Americans struggling to mature in a culture that values youth and an economic system that was broken by their parents' generation.

In their efforts to transcend, Malick's characters often encounter wrath—the swarm of locusts and subsequent fire in Days of Heaven or the terror of a violent father in The Tree of Life—but he consistently finds salvation in moments of physical grace, on which his camera lingers. Indeed, it appears that this is his artistic purpose: to document the heaven and hell that exist here on Earth. In Wonder, damnation is brought on by the failures of corporate America—the chemical companies who literally poison the well and a failed economic system responsible for rampant poverty—but the true hell is our inability to touch each other for more than a moment and provide real salvation.

In many ways, Wonder is a companion piece to The Tree of Life, in that both are semi-autobiographical works. The latter recounted his childhood in post-war suburbia, while Wonder is said to be in part based on his real-life marriage to a French woman in the '80s and '90s. In essence, Malick's turn inward has brought him to modern day, and it looks as if he is here to stay. Little is known about Malick's future projects, but it appears that he will continue to explore the current generation of young Americans. His next—Knight of Cups—is officially about "a man, temptations, celebrity, and excess." Sounds contemporary to me. After that, comes an untitled project that takes place against the backdrop of the indie music scene in Austin, Texas. It appears that Malick's exploration of contemporary America will continue, and if To the Wonder is any indication, he still has a lot to say.

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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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