Faith in others is an unforgiving task in To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s kinetic spin down the thorny stem of love, typified by Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Dizzy in love at Mont Saint-Michel, among other bucolic locales, during his extended visit in Paris, they decide to move to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Neil’s current worksite is located. Malick, more visually liberated than ever, allows his camera to get into the same infectious sweep as Marina, who seems to be in constant dance, no matter her surroundings. She brings along her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), who at first presses Neil to become her stepfather, but he’s distant and brooding, and the girl eventually demands to live with her real father. It throws a proverbial wrench into the new romance and Malick juxtaposes Marina’s yearning for the warmth and electricity that she once felt with Neil with the search for proof, or even the essence, of Christ by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Marina’s giving but beleaguered priest.
It’s the stuff of melodrama and Malick depicts this storm of withered passions with an untethered visual pace. Working with DP Emmanuel Lubezki, his close collaborator since The New World, Malick sends his camera flying wildly through the country air and then drifts through the troubled, neglected low-income terrain of Oklahoma, where Neil is investigating reports of subterranean poison. As the title suggests, Malick conjures an intense, empathetic curiosity with the rush of plain existence, a bid to see the world with the same ravenous excitement as its creator might. To the Wonder shares a similar, simple narrative bend as Days of Heaven and Badlands, but here his compositions are far more fluid and his sense of perpetual motion makes each frame feel thrillingly immediate and dreamlike. A trip through the aisles of Target has never seemed so ethereal, and yet so oddly carnal.
Neil seems gentler, more grounded with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a rancher and childhood acquaintance for whom he falls in the wake of Marina’s exit, but Kurylenko’s rhythmic creature still haunts him, as well as the film. We see Neil and Jane cavorting under sheets and through fields, but Marina’s voiceover suggests that Neil remains spellbound by his ex-lover, a feeling that’s confirmed when Neil leaves Jane to marry Marina, returning to Oklahoma after failing to find work in Paris. Their love, however, is now corrupted, a fact Malick subtly hints at when their union is witnessed by a convict before letting it unfold with an uncommon ferocity.
Another prisoner, one being visited by Quintana, is pestered by light pouring in through a clear window, and light, as in all Malick films, is a chief subject, a symbol of God’s love, but also the key element to filmmaking. While the prisoner grows angry at the light, another one of Quintana’s acquaintances says he feels His love through heated stained glass, in one of the film’s most memorable sequences. In other words, the filmmaker puts his faith in the medium, the intermediary. Those who seek direct faith, such as Quintana and the obsessed woman who follows him to his home, are doomed in Malick’s vision, incapable of seeing the miraculous in the everyday. When the woman pounds on Quintana’s front door, she’s framed blocking the light from coming in through frosted glass.
Late in the film, a scene wherein Neil attempts to explain to Tatiana how light factors into the look of a sunset is tellingly repeated. Tatiana isn’t interested in what he has to say, and it’s in fact this moment that directly precedes her furious demands to leave Oklahoma and go live with her father. Neil’s work—indeed, his life—is dictated by science and reason whereas Marina and Tatiana are creatures of instinct and emotion, and you’ll notice how she’s often backlit, taking in the sun as she gallops through the fields, and when alone, he’s constantly seen under overcast skies. In the dog days of their marriage, Neil becomes increasingly emotionally abusive, seen increasingly in heavily sunlit places, while Marina becomes even more spontaneous and uncontrollable. It’s a classical confrontation, but it’s depicted through unique gestures and aesthetic choices, both graceful and violent, minor actions that seem tremendous set against Malick’s engulfing, spacious vistas. The approach, emotionally complex in narrative as it is expectedly breathtaking in aesthetic, makes the familiar dynamic feel bracingly distinct and galvanic, and brings a renewed, unfettered faith to a medium that often seems lost in the darkness.
Magnolia follows in the line of more-or-less flawless transfers of Terrence Malick films on Blu-ray; it’s in great company with Criterion’s treatment of Days of Heaven, Badlands, and The Thin Red Line. Clarity is stunning throughout, which makes Malick’s natural lighting all the more spellbinding. The early scenes in France look absolutely amazing, but so do the scenes in Target and the supermarket, thanks to the bold, potent look of the colors littering the aisles and walls. Though Malick is adverse to night scenes largely, black levels prove to be nice and inky. As for the audio, it’s just as impressive, with dialogue and Marina’s voiceover clear and crisp out front. Hanan Townshend’s lovely score mixes well with selections from Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Hayden, and sound effects in the background. An exemplary transfer overall.
Three solid, if not exactly ideal, featurettes are included on the disc, and the best one deals with the local non-professionals who worked on the film, many of whom appear with Javier Bardem. A crucial element of what makes To the Wonder so enchanting is the easy warmth and boisterousness of the local people who help give the setting a life of its own, a sense of dense, unforced interconnectedness. The making-of featurette and "The Ballet" are stocked with interviews that give some sense of what it’s like to be under Malick’s direction, but there’s no sign of the man himself, sadly. "The Actor’s Experience" is just a shorter cut of the making-of featurette. A trailer is also included.
Terrence Malick gets swept up in a bad love affair in picturesque Oklahoma and Magnolia does more than well by the visual and auditory splendor of the director’s strangely ferocious sixth feature.