The Wonder of Malick
Among cinephiles, the question always seems to be what different thing Terrence Malick will do next. After all, his films break, in both style and topic, most every movie-making convention. The new film, awkwardly but aptly titled To the Wonder, proves his most experimental and is just downright gutsy. Yet again, it seems—and to a greater extent than ever before—Malick pushes hard on notions of what movies can (and should) actually do. Here, for example, the central character, Neil (Ben Affleck), an environmental monitor of some sort, says hardly anything at all in nearly two hours of movie. Though dominating screen time, he says no more than perhaps fifty words, and not all of those are consequential. When he and his girlfriend quarrel, we watch but don't hear—at least not well enough to grasp their issues. And throughout, far more words come in voiceover than in dialogue. Settings seem incongruous, opening with Paris and Mont Saint-Michel and then shifting to Oklahoma flatlands. As always with Malick, an intense visuality dominates. The camera leaps, floats, and jams, at once disorienting and enveloping. Constant montage wrestles up close with splendor, or terror, that everywhere hides in plain view. And he is really adept at all of this, dazzling both fancy critics and quite typical college students.
Still, however virtuosic and daunting these strategies may seem, they compare hardly at all to the singularity of the stories they serve. With To the Wonder, as throughout his whole long career, Malick freely mixes the romantic and, for lack of a better term, the numinous. Here two very different women, a French Roman Catholic mystical type and an Oklahoma evangelical, both love silent, indecisive Neil, and he them (probably). Now that is a triangle never seen before. And hovering about the edges trying to sort out his own and others' love problems is haunted cleric Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Malick handles all these matters reverentially, as if ...