to the wonder

Let’s compare the work of Terrence Malick to a body of water.

It started out as a mere stream in Badlands, a simple waterway carved out in nature but polluted (or purified?) with telltale rivulets of blood. With Days of Heaven that stream swelled into a river, at the same time diverting its course further from civilization and into the heart of the American wilderness. Then, all of a sudden, the river dried up, only to reappear as the violently awe-inspiring waterfalls of The Thin Red Line and The New World. Finally, The Tree of Life ended with its characters stranded on the cosmic beach where Malick’s river empties into an endless ocean of spiritual ecstasy, pain, and longing.

To the Wonder picks up where that film left off, finding Malick out at sea with no land in sight. This latest effort stands as the director’s most stylistically pure yet, eschewing narrative and character development in favor of more quintessentially Malickian virtues: the arc of light falling on lovers’ bodies, as captured by Emmanuel Lubezki’s wide lenses; the sounds of voices searching for God in the dark, always speaking as if disappearing around a corner; the sheer pleasure of motion, of figures twirling and prancing through the Oklahoma sunset. Some viewers will surely wish they could travel back upstream to the territory of early Malick and start construction on a dam. Those more willing to follow Malick into the great unknown will be entranced by his vast ocean of feeling. Though I sympathize with viewers who find his emotional grandiosity grating, I fall firmly into the latter camp.

The movie begins with one of the strongest passages in all of Malick’s oeuvre: a swooningly gorgeous whirlwind trip through Europe. Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko star as a pair of transnational lovers; he’s a stoic American, she’s an impossibly sensual Parisian. The couple travels to the titular wonder, the Mont Saint-Michel (note that it’s perched on a grey coast) before moving back to America with the ethereal Frenchwoman’s daughter in tow. They arrive in a land of vast beauty as well as vast suffering. This isn’t the American heartland we’ve seen onscreen so many times before; this is the no man’s land where the suburbs spill over into the countryside. Wealth coexists with decay, faceless buildings spring up out of empty space, and a tormented priest (Javier Bardem) keeps an uneasy watch over his wandering herd. The couple separates and then reunites. The daughter, unable to find a foothold in the alien land, retreats to her father’s home in France. The man wanders through construction sites caked in dust. We’re never told what his job is, but it involves some kind of communion with the earth. Something is not quite right with the land itself, with the soil upon which these characters have staked their lives. But how is that possible when they’re constantly surrounded by such overwhelming beauty?

Things tend to overflow in Malick films: images, meanings, feelings. It can sometimes start to feel like too much wonder to take in. Yet, despite this flood of plenty, as Bardem’s priest murmurs late in the film, “We thirst.” We’re continually drawn to Malick’s vast ocean of beauty, even as we’re constantly beaten back by the violent waves of disappointment, rage, and horror that it produces. The visual pleasures of Malick’s films are so staggering that it can be easy to forget the desperate pain that accompanies them. To the Wonder is no exception: rapturous shots of Kurylenko pirouetting through wheat fields and supermarkets eventually give way to suicide attempts and insinuations of domestic violence. Even when Malick makes an unfortunate calculation, such as an adultery subplot that smacks of hollow contrivance, he keeps us transfixed in the ebb and flow of beauty and pain. This emotional buffeting may not add up to his best movie (I’d reserve that title for Days of Heaven, but even his least efforts are monumental in their own right), but it’s arguably his most fearless and vulnerable. The film ends back at the Mont Saint-Michel, the tide receding back out after 112 minutes of turbulent splendor. Any more than that and I might have drowned; yet somehow I still can’t wait to embark on another voyage.