Yes, it would be easy to spoof or deride “To the Wonder.” Terrence Malick’s new film eliminates the dinosaurs, the tough Texas kids and Jessica Chastain — the things many viewers most enjoyed in the director’s previous film, “The Tree of Life” — but retains the ethereal voice-over, the religious symbolism and the emphasis on the dreamy and mysterious.
The plot of romantic love found and lost is simplicity itself, but supporting facts are elusive. Who are these stunning people, wandering Malick’s spongy beaches and grassy fields, musing about “the love that loves us” and “the eternal night”? “To the Wonder” doesn’t even give them names until the end credits.
Does it matter? Terrence Malick is to light as Orson Welles was to shadow: the master. An alternate title for “To the Wonder” might be “The Magic Hour,” in reference to the filmmaking term for the day’s first and last hours of sunlight, when the light is particularly warm and golden. Malick and his genius cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, haunt these hours the way vampires lurk in darkness. The light suggests the presence of God, as does the floating, gliding eye of the Steadicam lens, which follows the characters like an attendant spirit — “this invisible something,” in the words of a French woman. A suburban sprawl that other filmmakers might make ugly becomes a repository for God’s grace, in the form of the glow that caresses a stockade fence, that stripes the wall-to-wall carpeting in the otherwise empty room of a new house; a Sonic drive-in at dusk becomes a neon oasis. “I can feel the warmth of the light ... It’s spiritual ... I’m feeling a spiritual light,” says a church sexton, pressing his hand against a window. The camera often is low, and its angle of sight is wide, with great depth of focus — also like Welles.
Identified as “Neil” (as in “kneel”?) in the credits, Ben Affleck has the film’s most recognizable face. Neil is an environmental engineer of some sort who moves with his new girlfriend, the French woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko, also now on-screen in “Oblivion”), to a developing neighborhood in or near a city eventually identified as Bartlesville, Okla. With its square, identical lawns, brick-encased mailboxes and recently planted saplings, spindlier than the people they one day will shade, this subdivision is immediately familiar, yet it represents a place and way of life rarely seen in movies. A Paris friend of Marina’s calls the neighborhood “cramped ... simple ... false.” Marina’s 10-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), complains: “There’s something missing.” A priest (Javier Bardem) is dissatisfied, too. Yet Malick’s Oklahoma is as beautiful, in its way, as the film’s visions of Paris and Washington. What’s missing, Malick suggests, is not historical significance nor aesthetic integrity, but an interior quality: a connection with God.
The movie opens with Marina describing herself as “newborn,” and the first images are low-definition videocamera shots supposedly captured by Neil during the couple’s early courtship. The film grows up fast, but however sophisticated its visuals, Marina remains a gamin, a girlish sprite, prone to twirling with a mop in supermarket aisles. Her gamboling pixie nature may annoy some viewers (as it has many critics), but it’s not unmotivated: Malick, late in the film, indicates Marina was a ballerina, or at least a serious ballet student, so dancing for her is a form of expression. She’s musical, too; she plays piano; but even an artist needs more than a muse’s inspiration. “Open me — enter me — show me how to love you,” Marina says, in voice-over. Neil shares the frame, but she’s not talking to her lover: She’s talking to God — to, yes, Jesus. As in “The Tree of Life,” Christianity is the religion referenced here.
Terrence Malick made two masterpieces in the 1970s, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.”
His third film, “The Thin Red Line,” followed his second by 20 years, by which time Malick was regarded as a reclusive, reluctant or at least shy genius.
He now seems rejuvenated; “To the Wonder” debuted not much more than a year after “The Tree of Life.” At 112 minutes, it’s Malick’s shortest film since “Days of Heaven”; it’s also his first to take place entirely in the present day, although the time period is more or less irrelevant. Nobody here is seen texting or tweeting. Malick’s sensibility is traditional, too. An adulterous carpenter wears a chest tattoo of a spider’s web with a skull in its center; he might as well be decorated with devil’s horns.
Unlike the genuine saints he no doubt admires, Malick seems freaked out by the poor and needy, played here by odd-looking, unhealthy and impaired locals. (In contrast, Affleck and Kurylenko, may be among the globe’s most attractive people, as is Rachel McAdams, in the small role of another of Neil’s lovers.) When a sinewy, scary-looking homeless woman knocks on his door, the priest hides in the shadows; he seems more fearful than compassionate. Filled with remorse and doubt, the priest’s narration is in Spanish; Marina’s is in French; in other words, they are exiles in America. We hardly hear from Neil at all, but he’s an exile of sorts, too: “To the Wonder” is a post-Garden of Eden story. It’s a visual prayer for reunion with “the love that loves us.” (No wonder the movie contains almost no conversation; you don’t carry on conversation in church.) Even atheists and agnostics may respond. You don’t have to be religious to be moved by the tension between the wonder of the world around us — the wonder captured by Malick’s cameras — and the darkness within.
“To the Wonder” opens Friday exclusively at the Malco Ridgeway Four.
‘To the Wonder’
Rated R for brief sexual content and nudity.