A Romantic inquiry into love's eternal inconstancy and its coextensive capacity for redemption, American master Terrence Malick'ssixth directorial feature, To the Wonder(2012), enumerates and allegorizes its conflated content early in its first act: Olga Kurylenko's Marina and Ben Affleck's Neil, the film's off-again on-again lovers, lustfully embrace inside the cold granite confines of Mont Saint-Michel's Medieval abbey. Theirs is a fitful attempt at a Keatsian transcendence that To the Wonder will continue to chart as the formerly inflamed couple shift from the soft diffuse light of Marina's Northern France to the glowing ambers of Affleck's Great Plains home. The partially autobiographical To the Wonder - the director married a Frenchwoman (whom he later divorced) while residing in Paris in 1985 - emerges as a New World (2005) in reverse, with its frequently frivolous female lead following her often ineffectual man deep into the methadone-ravaged interior of Malick's Middle America. Marina - who, for a time, is supplanted in Neil's affections byformer acquaintance Jane (Rachel McAdams)- ultimately will provide a site of struggle, of the warring forces intrinsic to human nature, with the surreal appearance of an Italian friend giving external voice and license to her more illicit desires. The war, in other words, that The Thin Red Line(1998) sees in the "heart of nature," is staged inside the conflicted soul of Malick's maternal lead.
In this same Bartlesville, Oklahoma location that provides the setting for Marina's alienation, Malick introduces Javier Bardem's spiritually tortured Father Quintana, who, in moving among the disfigured population of the decaying mid-American postwar's, decries his inability to see a God who is everywhere and experience a God who is present in everything. (The Thin Red Line's pantheistic philosophy in this respect is re-imagined as Roman Catholic metaphysics.) To the Wonder will indeed persist in refusing the Spanish transplant the spiritual rebirth for which he thirsts, insisting instead that he struggle on in his life of service for society's neediest, for its outcasts and dispossessed. Malick's film similarly refuses its more well-healed romantic protagonists with an emotional epiphany of their own, opting instead for a grace made visible in Affleck's late gesture of forgiveness (in the image of The Tree of Life'safter-life act). Rather, the love in which both of To the Wonder's marriages will conclude, be it Marina and Neil's or Father Quintana's to the Church, will be modeled after the Priest's homily: love is not something to be found or discovered - as the film itself first represents romantic love in its opening "newborn" sequence - but rather is something to be made, to be brought about by an act of will.
In the aforementioned 'newborn' passage, a briskly and elliptically edited low-grade DV set-piece that introduces the reciprocal romantic feeling first shared by Marina and Neil, Malick identifies with the pre-cognitive, virgin visuality of Stan Brakhage's pre-hand-painted corpus. Malick's affinity with the American avant-garde also appears in his discrete selection of flat, textured images, recalling Nathaniel Dorsky, and in his cardinal emphasis on gradations and effects of light that place the film in a tradition that includes Robert Beavers. Then again, To the Wonder's subjectivity, lyrical visual economy and accentuation of natural lighting effects all represent key components of the Malickian aesthetic in its own right. Taking cues, to begin with, from the preteen narration of Days of Heaven (1978) and the shifting commentary of The Thin Red Line and The New World, Malick manufactures an outsiders perspective on the director's adolescent home, one that in part consists of the combined private reflections of Marina, her ten year-old daughter Anna (Romina Mondello) and Father Quintana. Then there is Malick's increasingly fragmentary and anti-immersive method of montage, that of The New World and especially The Tree of Life, which attends more to the lyrical and textural properties of the individual image, to the creation of an impression, than to the construction of chains of causality. Finally, there is Emmanuel Lubezki's sensitive, golden-hour cinematography that immediately calls to mind, much more than the American avant-garde, the luminous prairie landscapes of the director's very great Days of Heaven.
In the end, To the Wonder may not exactly match the imagistic richness and poetic myth-making of Days of Heaven, the narratological and philosophical ambitions of The Thin Red Line, or the purity and depth of romantic passion displayed within The New World. Though To the Wonder may just be lesser when judged against the impossibly competitive metric of past Malick, it is by every other standard a major and even prophetic work of an all-too-uncommon early twenty-first American art cinema. For better or for worse, Malick shows the way forward for a post-diegetic, Middle-American lyricism.