Terrence Malick's sixth feature film in a 40-year career is the nearest thing to a sequel he's done to date. To the Wonder strikes me as in many ways a thematic follow-up to Malick's 2005 film The New World. The earlier film is about a European's discovery of America, but one of its highlights is an American's discovery of Europe. In portraying Pocahontas's visit to England, Malick steered clear of any temptation to contrast an American paradise with a European dystopia. Pocahontas seems as fascinated by the Old World as John Smith was by the New -- and why not, since the English treat her much like the princess she is? To the Wonder starts with an American's visit to Europe approximately 400 years later. In a reversal of New World, the American brings a bride back with him to a World that's still New in some demoralizing ways. This world seems determined to stay new; much of it has a just-built feeling to it that contrasts starkly, particularly when framed by Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with the historic splendor of France. Malick has a knack for making the seemingly ordinary look new or strange; his camera eye doesn't take a lot for granted. His virtue as a director is that we seem to see everything as through a human eye, not as designed on a storyboard. We see things in his films the way we've seen them simply by walking around, when we don't take our surroundings for granted. Malick's impulse to see novelty in these details, to not take them for granted, may reflect a restlessness he seems to criticize in some of his characters. The American in To the Wonder is Neil, an environmental investigator of some sort (Ben Affleck). His restlessness isn't expressed in any wanderlust or reckless action, but in an inability to fully settle anywhere. He seems never to have fully unpacked his possessions in his own home. The place seems incomplete much as the Kansas countryside does, despite the splendors of wheat fields Malick captures with predictable ease. That incompleteness signals a fundamental incompatibility with his Ukranian-French bride, Marina (Olga Kurylenko). She has a hard time fitting in, Malick suggests visually, because there isn't really anything here for her to fit into. Something spiritual is missing, she supposes, and that absence also demoralizes the transplanted Hispanic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Malick invites us to see Quintana and Neil as parallel characters, both ministering in their particular ways to a benighted community, neither with any apparent result. Both, then, may be seen as victims of an absence to which Neil, as an authentic 21st century American, contributes, though his are sins of omission rather than commission. Neil seems to have inherited that primal restlessness Malick portrayed in The New World's John Smith, that kept Smith seeking rather than settling and cost him Pocahontas. Neil's no seeker, as far as we can tell, but he can't settle either. In Marina and Quintana's terms, he seems incapable of that transcendent love that creates and sustains a real community, that exists at least symbolically in France in that country's ancient cathedrals. In a reversal of conventional readings of The New World, To the Wonder appears to idealize Europe at America's expense. In their apparent rootedness in history and faith -- seen by Malick, it must be said, through the eyes of an idealistic tourist -- Europeans now seem more like "naturals" than today's Americans do.
In some ways To the Wonder is a more anti-American film than The New World was anti-imperialist, which may have something to do with why the U.S. moviegoing public has utterly rejected it compared to the more nostalgic Tree of Life. As I write, the film has left Albany after only one week at the local arthouse. I saw it on a weeknight with about a dozen other people, some of whom scoffed openly as the film ended. But that was less due to what Malick said than with how he said it, or what he wouldn't say. While the new film actually has more plot than Tree of Life, Malick seems to have moved further away than ever from conventional cinematic storytelling. He remains the least theatrical of film directors, the most skeptical toward the significance of dialogue. He doesn't believe in decisive moments that can be dramatized and acted out. The most glaring proof of this comes late in the picture. To force a final break between herself and Neil, Marina, who has returned to Kansas after initially going back to France, has a casual sexual tryst with another man. She, at least, intends the moment of her confession to be decisive, and audiences would certainly expect a theatrical showdown between Kurylenko and Affleck. But here's how Malick handles it. They've pulled up at a fast-food drive-thru window. Marina says, "Forgive me." Then Malick turns on the mute button. We don't hear her confession, Malick apparently believing that it's enough that we know what she's going to say. Almost perversely, he turns the sound back on so we can hear the restaurant person ask Neil if he's ready to order. We also hear Neil haltingly explain that he'll need a couple minutes more. But whatever he says to Maina -- we don't need to hear that. Spoken words hardly matter to Malick. The most sustained episodes of speech we get are when Neil or Quintana visit a miserable polluted neighborhood and hear residents' complaints about conditions or health. These scenes have a documentary air to them that Malick is either unable or unwilling to bring to intimate conversation. He's notorious for his reliance on voiceover narration, trusting himself to imitate individuals' interior consciousness more than their ability to reveal themselves in dialogue with others. I suspect that Malick may believe that the spiritual wholeness he (or some of his characters) long for depends less on conversation than on communion -- however you define that -- and that absent that communion his characters really live only inside their own heads. Hence the voiceover, which gains a new alienating effect when Marina or Quintana narrate in their native languages, leaving monolingual Americans to read subtitles to know what they're thinking. You might think that Malick would try to universalize thought in a way by having everyone think in English. His refusal to do that might be self-defeating literal-mindedness or it may be a conscious alienating device, underscoring how difficult he assumes it must be for us Americans to comprehend the two non-Americans' longings and frustrations. For all I know, Malick may take this film's failure as proof that he's on the right track aesthetically.
If To the Wonder is a failure, however, it's not because of Malick's narrative eccentricities, which can be seen, as I've tried to suggest, to have some philosophical integrity. Malick's real problem here is a certain hollowness right at the bleeding heart of the film. Olga Kurylenko has been a deer in the critical headlights (or gunsights) for playing what's now become the stereotypical Terrence Malick heroine. Some critics have seen nothing like this since the days of D. W. Griffith, when Lillian Gish and her sisters, professional and biological, illustrated their innocence and purity with childish frolicking and playacting. Tree of Life burned an image of Jessica Chastain twirling in casual ecstasy into people's minds as the definitive Malick figure, but Kurylenko's Marina makes Chastain look as rooted as a tree. She seems happy only when she's able to run, spin, gambol, etc. Her own daughter seems more levelheaded. Marina is femina ludens, an alarming hint that Malick may believe women's natural state is play. Her narration notwithstanding, she seems to have no inner life in terms of calling or vocation. We learn that she'd sought work unsuccessfully back in France after her first break-up with Neil, but we never see her try to get a job in the U.S. While Malick gives us glimpses of two other women -- horse-farmer Jane (Rachel McAdams), with whom Neil has a fling while Marina's away, and Anna (Romina Mondello), a strange woman who tries to goad Marina (in Italian!) into going wild after throwing Marina's purse into some shrubbery -- Marina remains our principle point-of-view character, and with that comes the disturbing implication that she is Malick's ideal female. If so, that suggests that a female's ideal role in Malick's world -- as opposed to the faltering Jane and the crazed ("Do you think I'm a witch?") Anna -- is that of a spiritual helpmeet, just about what might have been imagined several centuries ago, before this whole New World thing began. If To the Wonder seems leftist in its identification of industrial pollution with Something Wrong With America, its ultimate insistence on Divine Love as the basis of healthy society and its limited yet always sympathetic conception of Marina make it seem deeply reactionary by the end. I don't know if Malick's ideas can stand deeper scrutiny, but I'm willing to suggest that they don't deserve scrutiny if he can't actually imagine a plausible modern woman. That'd be a shame, because in pure cinematic terms his experimentation deserves applause. That he sees things differently from the way moviegoers are used to having them shown is a point in Malick's favor. There's enough good going on in To the Wonder that I'll break ranks and say that I liked it better than Tree of Life. But if it's new proof of Malick's artistic skills Wonder also exposes limits in his worldview that may limit how much further he can go despite his newfound efficiency in production. Malick turns 70 this year and has cut the time between films steadily ever since returning from a 20 year hiatus. Wonder comes only two years after Tree, and three more pictures are already listed in post-production by IMDB. Maybe Malick needs to make more movies to clarify his ideas to himself. If so, keep 'em coming.