What’s the Frequency, Terrence? Malick Returns With To the Wonder

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Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck in To the Wonder.
Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck in To the Wonder.

About a year and a half ago in this magazine, I suggested that Terrence Malick might be a better director if he made films more frequently. After slogging my way through 2011’s The Tree of Life, Malick’s operatic, rambling exploration of the beginning of life, the seeds of human suffering, and the moodiness of Sean Penn, I wrote that if the writer/director made a movie every year—like Woody Allen—rather than one every 10 years, “he wouldn’t feel such a heavy responsibility to explain the mysteries of the universe every time he turned on the cameras.” When’s the last time anyone accused a Woody Allen movie of having too much meaning?

Now I’m reconsidering that advice, mainly because it appears I was completely wrong. As the time between Malick movies has dwindled—The Tree of Life followed The New World by a relatively speedy six years—their ponderousness has only grown. And it looks like Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, which arrives in theaters this month, a mere two years after The Tree of Life, continues the trend.

I haven’t seen To the Wonder yet. Only attendees of the Venice and Toronto film festivals have seen it—and the film divided audiences into equally vocal camps: true believers and laughing mockers. But watching the trailer has put the fear of god in me. Like many Malick fans, I felt a deep emotional connection to his debut, Badlands, and its follow-up, the impossibly beautiful Days of Heaven. I was blown away by The Thin Red Line, his triumphant return after a 20-year hiatus, in a way I’d never been blown away by a movie before. I have dreamed about the perfect Malick movie, one packed with his trademark sweeping cinematography, magic-hour longing, and deep contemplation, but without all the gauzy arthouse flashbacks, humorless self-importance, and shots of wordless couples rolling around asexually in bedrooms and wheat fields and forest glens. Judging by its trailer, To the Wonder is not that movie.

The problem is that as Malick has grown older, his interest in narrative has diminished. Story was never his strength, but whether we’re talking about the killing spree in Badlands, the marriage-bed murder in Days of Heaven, or the battle sequences in The Thin Red Line, Malick’s post-Heidegger, post-Emerson philosophizing always grew out of action. In recent films, however, Malick’s interest in pure experimentalism has grown, leaving behind the storylines (however meager) that gave all that philosophy a human context. Take out the brilliant middle portion of The Tree of Life, with its deconstruction of the effects parental abuse can have on the spirit of a child, and you’re left with bookends that appear substantive but are actually as light as air, unmoored from earth and lacking anything resembling humanity. This is what they call style without substance. Or, perhaps, substance stifled by style.

Now we have To the Wonder, which is about a man (played, in a cruel trick on Malick’s most faithful fans, by Ben Affleck) who travels around France with a girl with whom he likes to pal around in curtains, and then meets another girl in Oklahoma with whom he likes to pal around on picnic blankets. Meanwhile, a priest (Javier Bardem) speaks in ponderous voice-over about the importance of love: “Awaken the divine presence, which sleeps in each man, each woman.” All that this trailer awakens, alas, is the fear that we Malick fans feel every time a new Malick movie is announced: the fear that, at long last, the over-earnest absurdities of this philosopher-turned-filmmaker will finally and fully drown the joy and beauty of one of cinema’s greatest visual artists.

Maybe it’s best after all that Malick wait years between movies. When he does, we get The Thin Red Line, which has action and movement and drama and tension. When he doesn’t, he makes movies that are static and glacial. The worst thing Malick could have done is make a movie about people falling in and out of love, allowing him to indulge his lust for contemplation, but without dynamics—which, let’s be honest, are what movies are all about. Maybe it’s time for Malick to make an action movie or a western or a screwball comedy. Otherwise his next film may be a three-hour Steadicam shot of a patch of grass accompanying voice-over narration by Bradley Cooper about the expansiveness of the universe.

The sad thing is, I’ll be the first in line for that one, too.