With each new film, Terrence Malick has pared away a little more of what we could once expect from his cinema and intensified whatever remained. Characters have been assigned less and less personality and motivation; plots have given way to fables, fables to premises, and premises to ideas; conversations have been phased out and half-whispered voiceovers phased in; narrative continuity has been strained, then broken. At the same time, human movement has grown increasingly abstract and dancelike; tiny gestures have been given more and more weight; classical and choral music have become almost ubiquitous.
With To the Wonder, beauty takes the place of myth, history, and memory at the heart of the director’s world. And as Malick’s reverence for beauty in itself has grown, so has his trust in its Creator: if The Tree of Life was an uncertain prayer for grace, To the Wonder is a bold, even bullying hymn of praise. We have received grace, Malick proclaims, and called it Beauty.
The story, such as it is, concerns an American man whose unspecified job involves unrolling blueprints at muddy development sites, and the French woman he takes back home, stubbornly refuses to marry, loses, reclaims, weds, and abandons—and with whom he is finally, undeservingly reunited. He is played by Ben Affleck, who does very little and does it quite well, and she by Olga Kurylenko, an exceptionally gorgeous woman transformed under Emmanuel Lubezki’s worshipful lighting into an impossibly gorgeous one. The couple dance through the streets of Paris and the supermarkets of American suburbia, raise their arms to sunset-drenched skies, make love, turn on one another, drift through doorframes, and keep dancing, as Malick’s camera swoops, arcs, curves, bends, and dives around them. It is all excessive, glorious, overbearing, sexy, and deeply exhausting.
One of the chief virtues of Malick’s sense of beauty is that it refuses to distinguish between a tiny gesture and a sunset, a waterfall, or a star-studded sky; one of its chief drawbacks is that this denies any small gesture the right to stay small. His eye is cosmic, and he can only consider the turn of a wrist or the tentative joining of two hands with the grandeur due an event of cosmic proportions. There is something oppressive about this all-inclusive view of beauty. It demands the full measure of our devotion and indeed our rapture, with little room left for the quieter, mellower ranges of aesthetic experience. Appreciate this! is the imperative couched within so many of Malick’s shots, recalling the command attributed to Christ at one point mid-film: “You shall love.”
To the extent that any recent Malick film has characters, as opposed to archetypes, dancers, symbols and models, they tend to be dissatisfied. “There are two women in me,” Kurylenko confesses, and in Malick’s subjects there are nearly always two people: the caring partner and the insensitive loner, the priest who can’t himself believe what he preaches to others; the body bound to nature and the soul bound for grace. There will always be something missing in human relationships, because there is something inherently unstable about any life whose happiness depends on the whims of another’s mind and the constancy of another’s heart. This absence can only be filled by a complete beauty, one that doesn’t allow for ambiguity or opposition or doubt. But if this all-inclusive beauty completes us, it also stifles us. It refuses us the permission to interject or breathe. And it makes us wonder whether any sort of beauty can be a suitable antidote to doubt which doesn’t at the same time doubt itself.
To the Wonder’s most fully realized character is a conscience-stricken priest named Father Quintana, played with hangdog austerity by Javier Bardem. One of his parishioners prays that he receive “the gift of joy,” but it’s not clear he even wants that gift. He mingles with the poor, sick, and incarcerated, and we get the sense that he has refused that tidy brand of joy out of solidarity with those who can’t afford it, or out of fear of blinding himself to their suffering. His joy would have to take those people into account; it would have to be conflicted, hard-won and, in the end, not all that joyful.
In Malick’s world joy is not something cultivated but something received, a specific category of grace, and the refusal of joy is, in effect, a refusal of divine favor altogether. The fear is that grace and its accompanying pleasures are liable to dull our attention to the pain of others; that its joys align dangerously closely with the benefits of high status and good fortune. The moment we start to share Quintana’s reservations about divine grace, we’re likely to find Malick’s sense of beauty equally easy, equally unearned. Like that parishioner’s joy, it can have a whiff of privilege. His compositions are too harmonious, their prettiness unchecked by anything inelegant or ugly.
Malick anticipates, even welcomes these charges; it’s telling that this film, which says yes to so much, has at its moral center a character willing to say no. If To the Wonder does give us immoderate visual pleasure, it also gives us a robust vocabulary with which to resist it. It’s a film about the absence of grace shot as if from the perspective of someone who has already received grace: in effect, we can identify with Quintana only by setting ourselves at odds with the lens through which we see him. We remain in this position until To the Wonder’s final 10 minutes: a breathless passage in which Quintana seems to reach the unspoken conclusion that grace’s rewards are more basic than prosperity, freedom or health; that life itself ought to be treated as an undeserved gift. Not much has changed on screen—the film’s key players still wander in and out of doorways, float through wide-open vistas, converge and drift apart. It is still excessively pretty, but its prettiness now seems like a necessary invention: an attempt to respond to divine grace with a gift of equal proportions. If To the Wonder’s beauty is unearned, it’s in the same way that grace is unearned; if its visual pleasure feels excessive, it’s no more excessive than grace itself. Anything less, Malick suggests, would be ungrateful.
After a single viewing, I already find To the Wonder expanding and brightening in memory. Malick’s images look their best when they have the freedom to work their charms slowly instead of battering you into submission. Now I can flip through the film at my own pace, lingering over whichever images catch the eye: a couple embracing amid the folds of swirling curtains or pirouetting down the Champs-Élysées; a garage door opening slowly to the light; an endless beach and a far-off castle; a parade of unforgettable bit players and scene-stealing extras; Olga Kurylenko’s face—though perhaps I can’t credit that one entirely to Malick’s artistry.
Still, I have to come to terms with To the Wonder itself, not as a collection of images but as a film: every camera nosedive, every backlit strand of hair, every swell of the strings. There is something suspicious about accepting grace only on one’s own terms; the more appropriate question, as a recent Village Voice review of Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan put it, is not how much grace you want but “how much grace can you take?” Biblical metaphors for grace have a tendency to sound excessive, intemperate: do our cups really need to overflow? Wouldn’t it be easier for all concerned if they were just sensibly full? We might ask a similar question of To the Wonder, a demanding film not because it denies us pleasure, but because it gives us so much.
The primary danger of films like To the Wonder is that they can train us to respond to the brilliant, not the merely bright; the rare and rapturous vision over the impure beauty of daily life. For those of us who do believe in the reality of grace, they suggest what it would be like to keep the thought of grace in mind at all times, to the exclusion of everything else; to keep one’s eyes fixed so devoutly on the clouds as to miss the very different and perhaps rougher beauty of the earth below. I imagine that the most sensible way to handle grace on a day-to-day basis would be to let its presence give a faint tint of color to the rest of experience; to let it bring things into slightly brighter relief without obscuring them altogether.
That is also the effect of To the Wonder, which, when seen from memory’s safe distance, makes every one of life’s movements seem a little more graceful, every glimmer of sunlight a little more intense. As for those two hours spent in the theater, I see no reason why, if grace is neither sensible, moderate, nor all that comfortable, we ought to expect those virtues from its onscreen equivalent. What we ought to expect, and what we receive, is beauty—exasperating, draining, and, for better or worse, complete.