“To the Wonder” stands out among director Terrence Malick’s films in that his signature style – a lyrical, ruminative approach to filmmaking, concerned with examining themes from a macro sense instead of getting too specific with plot or character, meditative voiceover playing over breathtakingly gorgeous shots of nature, filming in the magic hour, natural lighting, a dreamy and expressionistic feeling of montage running through the entire feature – directly plays into the story the film is telling, instead of just being a vehicle through which to tell it.
In a film where humans struggle with transience of love, with feeling incapable of love, with feeling their love is wasted, where faith and love disintegrate only to get built back up only to disintegrate again (portrayed from such a pulled-back, macro perspective that specific reasons become irrelevant and the fundamental issue of the spirit doing this becomes the focus instead), where the crux is struggling with finding consistent love, faith, beauty in one’s life, Malick’s resplendent cinematic style, so adept at finding limitless depths of beauty in anything he shoots, becomes the answer to the story he’s telling, instead of just the way he’s telling it. “Everything is beautiful here” says a character as Malick portrays a supermarket with as much grandeur and beauty as he would the ocean, a forest, celestial bodies in space. “He does not find [his wife] lovely, he makes her lovely” says the priest character so focal to the film, and that shift in perspective is key to the film’s approach.
It’s notable this was Malick’s first film set in the present, so his portrayal of modern environments (including laundromats and fast-food restaurants) all becomes part of the narrative. The sun, the constant visual focus in his films, becomes god – elusive in the magic hour he shoots most of his films in, but still bathing the world and its inhabitants in beauty, and offering sustenance to the world even when unseen.
The film lacks traditional narrative, plot, and character to a greater degree than his previous work, doubling down on the lyrical, tone poem approach, where film becomes more like montage and music. Body language becomes more important than exposition (if not for the voiceovers, the film would feel like silent cinema at times), visual rhymes and reprisals more important than explicit story movement, minimising dialogue to make the characters more mythic archetypal stand-ins for human behaviour than specific bundles of traits and motivations…it all captures the tonal and emotional impressions of life and relationships moreso than going for specific applicability through narrative. Linearity or non-linearity isn’t so much the point (though there is an interesting suggestion that the Rachel McAdams sequence actually comes after the bulk of the film’s runtime, given the chronology of a certain hospital visit and the implication of Affleck’s character’s cyclical behaviour), the whole film feels like half-remembered memories, getting to tonal and emotional truths rather than structured narrative. The film doesn’t so much suggest a thesis because it’s not so much a narrative, it offers suggestions and pathways, like real life.
It’s an inherently incomplete story told about incomplete people. These people think they can make themselves whole by uniting with another person, but it inevitably fails when they’re not wholes already. Malick seems less interested in the character’s approach to love and marriage specifically so much as their approach to interacting with the world around them, and how that determines their lives. Wonder, love, beauty, doesn’t just come from infatuation, it can be found anywhere, as Malick’s dreamy, roaming eye in the form of handheld cameras shows us. “Thirsting. We thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of you. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.”
The film often returns to the titular fortress castle, the Wonder, out on a tidal island, only able to be accessed at certain times, sometimes leaving one stranded or stuck or overextended, sometimes maddeningly out of reach. A hidden garden lies within. The salty ocean water surrounding it in insufficient to maintain it, it requires consistent human care to survive. Love. The entirety of the film demonstrates a way to find that love in all things, not just the intoxicating form we feel it the clearest in. Four and a half fields, and a smashed car mirror.