“Newborn” is the first word spoken in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Newborn because it’s the first film the auteur has made that takes place in the present day. Newborn because he casts Olga Kurylenko as an inheritor of Pocahontas’s existential sense of displacement, and lover of a man who’s something of a world-builder, in this impressionistic, largely improvised story of a doomed love affair. Newborn because it sees Malick flirting, however briefly, with newfangled technology. This whispered word, which will have the ring of gospel to some, is uttered atop a flurry of digital-camera imagery, of Marina (Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) joshing around inside a train that rushes them to the rocky tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel, whose medieval town’s construction predates the birth of John Smith’s Native American sweetheart, and which sits impossibly atop land as fluid in texture as the film itself.
Throughout To the Wonder, the new and old are incessantly twinned, blurred into a package that suggests an experimental dance piece. The film’s themes—among them the panic of the spirit, the precariousness of land and human interaction—are familiar sermons for Malick, and given his propensity toward religious sentiment, that shouldn’t be read as insult, especially to parishioners of the Church of Terrence Malick. But To the Wonder, which is cut from an aesthetic cloth far wilder in construction than The Tree of Life’s, is close to folly, an undisciplined doodle lush with big ideas, but dully imitative of Malick’s previous high notes and cringingly reductive of immigrant experience. To say so feels like a confession, but doubt, in the words of German-American theologian Paul Tillich, “isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
To the Wonder suggests a perpetual fugue state, the camera often traveling over the face of the water, through fields of grass, even supermarket aisles, looking up toward the heavens, whirling around characters even as they whirl themselves, lurching toward them even as they run off. Yet everyone remains a cipher, beyond the camera’s reach, and ours. This impression may be intended, an expression of Malick’s belief in the transitory nature of human life—not to mention art. But the torments and passions of the characters who haunt Malick’s earlier work, even at their most abstract, are more concretely understood, and as To the Wonder comes to us so soon after The Tree of Life, its infinitely more amorphous design and sense of momentum more convincingly register as a reflection of a notoriously reclusive filmmaker’s at once awestruck and apprehensive, almost idiot-savantish relationship to human experience.
“You got me out of the darkness,” Marina says, ostensibly referring to Neil, who doesn’t exude the passion of someone capable of elevating anyone’s spirit. Maybe darkness, though, is the old world whose traumas have left her feeling adrift. But the new world is no less shaky, and the film is at its most exquisitely articulate, though also at its most pessimistic, in its suggestion that we are only as solid as the ground beneath our feet. As Neil, less man than the shape of one, trudges through the primordial soup-like waters of a construction site and up a mountain of dirt, he exudes the sorrow of someone frustrated by the futility of his mission—that the world he builds will never change the lives of the po’ folk who surround him. Which parallels the crisis of faith of a local priest (Javier Bardem), who, in a pointed fragment of a scene, unleashes a dog from the front of a home, as if to free it from the surrounding squalor, only to watch the pooch stay put. Which parallels the evolution of Malick’s art, which, as it increasingly goes the way of Dog Star Man, suggests a master filmmaker’s reckoning with the light of the future.
To the Wonder is a whirling dervish of a film that feels akin to watching a man doing his laundry; it’s an expensive-looking, overloaded spin cycle that accommodates every notion Malick has ever had about faith, love, nature, nurture, the afterlife, etc., staggering mostly in its emotional incoherence, intellectually rehashing as it does philosophical ideas and visual motifs he’s previously carried perilously close to the edge of self-parody. Marina and Neil’s existentially fraught relationship to their living room furniture is a rather feeble articulation of the soullessness of materialism that, along with their deteriorating relationship, echoes the rarefied performance art that’s made of the relationship between Sean Penn’s Jack and his wife in The Tree of Life. And just as that film ends with a euphoric vision of the afterlife not without its Christian implications, To the Wonder brings a slice of Eden to Oklahoma in a naïve scene that suggests the power of shared immigrant experience is transportive enough to allow Marina to transcend language barriers by comprehending a fellow female émigré’s naturally impassioned Italian.
To believe that the film’s nebulous design is a reflection of Marina’s rootlessness is a forgiving reading, though it at least makes some sense of Marina’s propensity toward constant twirling, as well as some of Malick’s more purple depictions of romantic and sexual frisson: an adulterous hookup that’s practically staged as kabuki theater and, more preposterously, Rachel McAdams, as an ex-fling Neil reunites with after Marina returns to France to be with her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), ecstatically rolling around a sea of leaves in an evening gown. (Needless to say, all of the film’s background players possess perfectly normal equilibriums.) Malick has always depicted “otherness” in provocative, unexpected ways throughout his films, most notably in The New World, and though our blurred perception of Marina’s inner life is consistent with that of Pocahontas’s, we’re asked to take her “otherness” as a given. Unlike Pocahontas, Marina may be unburdened by historical record, but unlike Jessica Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien from The Tree of Life or Sissy Spacek’s Holly from Badlands, she would appear to have no history at all.
To the Wonder fails because its deliberately forceful artistry feels completely unhinged from Marina’s point of view. Her spiritual hunger need not be embedded in the same stern religious upbringing that informs the relationship between Mrs. O’Brien and God in The Tree of Life, though it should be embedded in something. Without any sense of what the gorgeous divorcee left behind in Paris, and Ukraine before that, and without any understanding of what befuddles and transfixes her about America beyond the obscene cleanliness of supermarkets, she simply feels as if she’s pantomiming someone else’s spiritual yearning—namely that of Q’Orianka Kilcher’s Pochahontas from The New World—as she perpetually flits about, reaching for the sky and sun with outstretched hands, chasing after lines of birds who have the freedom to fly that she ostensibly does not. Which is to say, Marina is not unlike the film itself: a false prophet.