Exteriors at magic hour. Interiors before the movers come. Curtains blowing in the wind, often with someone hiding on the other side. Trees. Sky. Churning, trickling and spraying waters. Hands caressing wheat and tall grasses. Women scampering away from the camera with sprightly verve. Lost, anguished men scanning the horizon for answers. Swings. Empty chairs. Livestock. Birds. Necks and necking. Classical music. Elliptical voiceover narration. Constant searching. These are the fundamental, incontrovertible elements of Terrence Malick's cinema — those things that both his most ardent fans and his befuddled detractors agree make a Malick film distinct.
Thus, any debate about Malick's cinema typically comes down to whether those elements combine to exude the two qualities Malick most consistently explores: grace and awe. Malick's latest film, To the Wonder, might have more of those basic signature elements than any of its predecessors, despite being Malick's shortest film in more than three decades, but it's almost entirely lacking in grace and awe. It's all fundamentals with almost no feeling — save for emptiness. The gestures are familiar, but this time there's no soul behind them. The auteur's trademark flourishes feel less designed for this film than leftover from previous ones. To the Wonder is Terrence Malick via Overstock.com.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Six features into Malick's 40-year career, maybe this is where the shine rubs off and what once felt so exotic starts to look overused. It's not that Malick's five previous features were wholly original; indeed, one of the most beautiful things about Malick's oeuvre is its visual and thematic consistency. But Malick's first five films were infused with a sense of exploration, discovery and birth. (Heck, his two most recent pictures chronicle the creation of Jamestown and the entire universe.) And that's sorely lacking here. To the Wonder isn't filled with characters looking for inspiration so much as actors desperately in search of their motivation. Malick might be emotionally connected to this material, but like Javier Bardem's lonely priest all I could see were stained-glass windows; I didn't see The Light.
Almost everything here comes off like a pose. Ben Affleck's performance as Neil is notable not for its scarcity of on-screen dialogue (hardly unusual in Malickland) but for the overwhelming effort he seems to put forth not-talking. (His character doesn't come off as terse or inward, despite attempts to describe him that way; more like a guy with fragile vocal cords whose doctor has ordered him to keep quiet.) Meanwhile, Olga Kurylenko, as Neil's love interest, is less a woman than a house cat, rubbing up against whatever man or structure happens to be nearby. Bardem's priest, as mentioned, indeed looks lost, but it's the kind of lost that suggests a drunk who can't remember where he parked his car the night before, or even if he has a car in the first place, no matter how often his inner monologues suggest otherwise. And then there's Rachel McAdams, as Neil's quasi-mistress, who appears so disoriented that at one point she turns toward the camera with an expression that seems to say: "Wait, you're rolling?"
It's tempting to attribute the film's lack of emotional heft to the slightness of the plot, as if To the Wonder is Malick at his most narratively ambiguous. But any sense that To the Wonder is "about" less than its predecessors is evidence of its blandness as a final product, not an architectural deviation from the norm. Malick's movies have always been more concerned with connecting us on an emotional level than with connecting plot points — that's what allows Malick to "find" his films in the editing room, excising footage that was once thought essential. Alas, here the characters are vapid and unknowable — as empty as the rooms they so frequently occupy, as thin as shadows of Malick's previous films that blanket this picture in scene after scene.
For someone new to Malick, To the Wonder might be an effective gateway: if you've never seen Malick, you've never seen anything quite like this. But I suspect that many of us who have Malick's movies printed on our heart will find it difficult to watch Kurylenko's Marina raising her hands to salute a storm without thinking about Q'orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas doing the same in The New World, just like it's almost impossible to watch Affleck's Neil playing by lamplight without remembering Brad Pitt's character doing the same in The Tree of Life. What once felt specific, organic and true now feels random and offhand, which threatens to retroactively suffocate the charms of To the Wonder's predecessors. (All these years I thought I was connecting with Kilcher's Pocahontas in that beautiful follow-shot at the end of The New World; but then I saw Kurylenko's Marina mimic the same routine at least twice in this movie and realized I was merely connecting with Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's choreography.) It's like having your heart race when the pretty girl in school calls you "sweetie," only to later learn she calls everyone "sweetie."
Those still fully enthralled by Malick's magic spells — and I say that with envy, not condescension — will see no fault in any of this, I'm sure. For them, pointing out the sameness of Malick's images is like pointing out the sameness of Woody Allen's dialogue, and noting that these characters seem to have nothing to say to one another is like noting the way characters in musicals only express themselves in song. This is what Malick cinema is, they might rightly insist, as if nothing has changed. But it has changed. Malick's previous films remarkably yet routinely achieve transcendence, in parts and in sum. To the Wonder struggles to even achieve presence.
All that said, the timing of To the Wonder's release makes it something of an interesting case study: In recent years an increasing number of critics (including me) have attempted to get beyond hype, celebrity, legend and cinematic stereotypes by dismantling movies like mechanics — sometimes going so far as to assign specific (as if inflexible) values or definitions to various compositions, cuts, color palettes, camera movements, etc. According to that analytical approach, To the Wonder is the equal of Malick's previous pictures because it's built from the same auteuristic materials. And yet while To the Wonder is released into an evolving critical universe that sometimes seems uncomfortable with feeling first and deconstructing later, it's also released in the aftermath of the death of Roger Ebert, who never appeared to let the "math" of a movie talk him into a reaction he didn't first feel in his heart. None of this is to imply that those who adore To the Wonder do so insincerely, or that this movie is impossible to love on a gut level (Ebert, in one of his final reviews, was enchanted by it). But for me To the Wonder is another welcome reminder that the greatness of art is often intangible. In simplest terms, we feel it or we don't.
With a few fleeting exceptions, To the Wonder left me untouched. No movie in Malick's filmography better expresses the isolation of the individual (even when we are with someone, we are trapped inside ourselves). But at the same time, no other Malick movie treats its human characters like their bovine counterparts. Here, there is no depth of mind: women crawl on the ground in passion, crawl on the ground in apology and crawl on the ground in rage (who knew crawling was so versatile?), and at one point Kurylenko's character actually licks a tree. The latter might be a sign that eventually one of Malick's characters will literally fuck nature, as if living down to the wisecracks of his naysayers. But I fear it might be proof that at this point Malick isn't straining to realize a vision so much as getting lost in the image itself.