Terrence Malick made his long-awaited and much welcome return in 2011 with The Tree of Life, an intimate epic which transpired to be as all-encompassing as its title suggested. Beginning with the birth of the universe and culminating in a hazy quasi-afterlife sequence, the middle meat of the film honed in on an isolated family unit in 1950s small-town America and examined the eldest son’s existential quandary.
Venerated Russian director and certified genius Andrei Tarkovsky famously described the art of cinema as ‘painting with time’, exalting the camera’s exclusive capacity to document the passage of life. Malick fulfils this definition through his assemblage of splintered recollections into a living tapestry. The narrative of Tree of Life is an accumulation of fragments; fleeting glimpses of childhood, morsels of a man’s memory collated together into a rhythmically edited narrative privileged to the cinematic form.
This same rhythm is further refined in To the Wonder, which basks in the enigma of love in much the same way that Tree of Life dwelled on the mystery of life.
Much of the film’s promotional imagery has prominently featured Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, though the former has few lines and the latter scarcely much screen-time. Instead, it is the supremely beautiful Olga Kurylenko who occupies the film’s focus, swimming to varying degrees of comfort through the duelling environments of a stoic, impassive human civilisation and the serene expanse of the natural world that forever nurtures the unbound feeling of young love.
Kurylenko is entranced by lover Affleck in more ways than is healthy; fluctuating between distance and close promixity, she can never fully comprehend his headset, his desires or his being. Her voyage and voiceover are mirrored in the perspective of Javier Bardem’s similarly entangled priest, a man in one-way dialogue with his heavenly father. Bardem’s subplot has been dismissed in some critical circles as superfluous and distracting, though it is a pertinent addition that subtly underpins rather than undermines the foregrounded journey, in addition to casting the film as a spiritual companion to Tree of Life.
Bilge Ebiri gave an insightful interpretation of the characters’ movements throughout, likening them to dancers wistfully gliding through the frame. The rhythm of Tree of Life has been augmented so that the actors, camera and editing all move in one symphonic movement, blending seamlessly together to form a string of vibrant, kinetic images that flow elegantly forward.
While some directors adopt a European sensibility in prolonging the length of a shot in order to evoke a feeling, Malick instead opts for an economical approach to editing that neither holds the viewer’s hand nor omits key visual information. Shots that are expected to run at length suddenly wash into the next, even into moments from the same scene and captured from the same angle, removed by just a few seconds. The fragmented nature of memory inherent to Tree of Life’s structure is thus lifted and transposed onto fresh protagonists. The approximation of that film’s aesthetic fits like a glove, and the resulting effect is oneiric and disorienting as befits the characters’ temperament, at once lost and longing.
Malick’s work ethic has surged unexpectedly in recent years; at least three more projects are in the pipeline, expanding on a career that produced a mere five features delivered over an almost 40-year timespan. If quality supersedes quantity, his legacy is and has always been secure. Having settled into a comfortable creative groove with now-regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and continually perfecting his aesthetic with each feature, Malick’s future offerings could either tread precariously on repetitious ground or evolve into something as equally transcendent as his finest work. For some, To the Wonder has risked the former offence. To this reviewer, the film briskly touches upon the sublime, of which the entirety of Malick’s oeuvre can be confidently defined.