Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder: A Gush of Cosmic Rapture

Mysterious and mystifying, the new Malick film offers cinematic rewards well worth sampling

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Mary Cybulski / RedBud Pictures / Magnolia

When Ben Affleck saw the final cut of To the Wonder, he said it “makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.” Affleck, the picture’s star, may have been miffed that his dialogue scenes had been reduced to just a few lines. But his annoyance or perplexity is sure to be echoed by other viewers, when and if they see Terrence Malick’s vivid, confounding movie. The sixth film in a 40-year career that began with Badlands and reached an elysian peak of sorts with The Tree of Life in 2011, To the Wonder is, as Affleck suggests, The Tree of Life, only more so — way more.

The simple romantic triangle of a man (Affleck), a Ukrainian woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), whom he married in Paris and brings to his Oklahoma hometown, and another woman, Jane (Rachel McAdams), the American girl he left behind, To the Wonder could be Malick’s most personal and political film. In the 1980s, the director lived in Paris, where he married a Frenchwoman, Michèle Morette. He brought her to the U.S., divorced her, and married Alexandra Wallace, his high school sweetheart. To underline the autobiographical aspects of To the Wonder, Malick shot the movie in Bartlesville, Okla., where he grew up, and where his geologist father examined oil spills, as the Affleck character does.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Tree of Life)

And the politics? Bartlesville is an oil-dependent community facing inundation by the same tar-sands crude seepage that recently forced the evacuation of 21 homes in Mayflower, Ark., 150 miles to the east. As a Bartlesville resident says, “Sometimes we see tar comin’ out the cracks in the patio.” Shot four years ago, To the Wonder can be seen as a ripped-from-the-headlines screed against the Keystone pipeline and, in grander terms, America’s oil addiction.

Be warned: the central romance and plea for environmental caretaking simply provide the scaffolding for a modernist symphony of enigmatic figures and pristine nature, as captured by Emmanuel Lubezki’s ever gliding Steadicam. To the Wonder pushes cinematic experiment to a degree not previously attempted by Malick — or, really, by anyone working in narrative cinema. It’s a sound and light show of the most challenging and rewarding kind.

(MORE: Brad Pitt on the Mystery of Terrence Malick)

“Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt into the eternal night.” The film’s opening words, intoned by Marina, hint at the commitment Malick insists viewers bring to his work. Go with the flow of images; trust your senses to intuit, from the music of the pictures, the meanings that other movies spell out in dialogue. Malick wants to transport you from a multiplex auditorium to the cathedral of nature. To the Wonder, like all his films but especially The Tree of Life, is a ramble through the ecstasies of the natural world as experienced or ignored by little people on a giant, gorgeous, endangered planet.

On the rocky Normandy island of Mont Saint-Michel (where, by the way, Transformers director Michael Bay shot part of Armageddon), Marina and her lover revel in the physical and spiritual intensity of their affair. They tread the shoreline, where the silt has the strange consistency of a giant Baggie, or an oil spill, and climb steps to the island’s peak — “to the Wonder.” Marina proclaims herself “forever at peace”; the movie will document that forever is a perishable commodity.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Badlands)

Affleck’s character, unnamed in the film but called Neil in the press notes, has fallen in love with Marina and her charming 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), the child of a Frenchman who abandoned them years before. After their Paris rapture, Neil brings Marina and Tatiana to Bartlesville, where he gets a job as an environmental inspector. The townsfolk worry about oil spills and patio cracks, while the residue of Neil’s earlier life creates cracks in his relationship with Marina and Tatiana.

The Ukrainian newcomers feel a crippling foreignness in a land so different from the one they knew. Tatiana, who speaks little English and therefore cannot make friends in Bartlesville, tells Neil that she’s “writing [her] thoughts” on his forehead; meanwhile, he hides his thoughts about his interest in his old girlfriend Jane. Marina, a free spirit who whirls through their house and the wheat fields, husbands her secrets from her husband: “I write on water what I dare not say.” Mother and daughter both send distress messages that Neil may be unable to read.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Days of Heaven)

Another displaced person is the town’s Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), whose vocation and faith are suffering their deepest challenge. He prays to feel “Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in my heart. Show me how to seek you.” His parishioners have divined his private calvary; an old woman says, “Father, I’m going to pray for you, so you achieve the gift of joy.” Quintana, the movie suggests, needs to see that God is nature — all around him, in the pained faces of his meager flock.

Malick is known for shooting miles of improvisations and stitching his stories together with semi-explanatory voiceover narration. The Tree of Life took three years to complete from its 2008 production to its 2011 Cannes Film Festival premiere. To the Wonder, filmed in 2009, employed five editors to achieve the amorphous shape Malick demanded. In the process, the work of several prominent actors, including Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen, was excised from the film. It’s said that Malick made three versions of his 1998 The Thin Red Line: one, the release cut; the second, a linear narrative; and the third, a wholly impressionistic take. With To the Wonder he went with the impressionistic take, which is fine. But it would be a treat to see, on DVD, the longer version with Weisz, Chastain and the others. Paging the Criterion Collection!

(MORE: TIME on The Thin Red Line)

Even those who appear in the film might be baffled by what’s onscreen and what isn’t. Kurylenko, the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, is the only actor Malick lets run free; her performance is less an investigation of character than an angelic fashion statement — part Piero della Francesca, part Francesco Scavullo. Meanwhile, Bardem agonizes and McAdams frets, to little emotional effect. As for Affleck, the press notes tell us that he “read works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald” and “watched movies starring Gary Cooper to shape [his] character.” He’s still the male lead, but there’s little evidence of the fruits of all that homework; again, the psychology is missing. “I don’t do much. I wander around,” he told TIME’s Joel Stein about To the Wonder. “I want people to know it’s unusual. If you have pot, smoke it.”

(MORE: TIME’s Profile of Ben Affleck)

And if Malick if flirting with autobiography — his current wife is credited as “Ambassador of Good Will,” raising the suspicion that it was her task to inform Weisz, Chastain and the rest that they didn’t make the final cut — the narrative here, as in any Malick movie, is just one element in a tapestry of sights and sounds. The source music is by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Berlioz, Gounod and, for a football fight song, the Bartlesville High School marching band.

The central romance in To the Wonder has its vagrant epiphanies, but it carries less emotional weight than Malick’s choice of faces and vistas; the supporting cast and locations capture the director’s eye and hold the viewer’s. An old black man with a wispy beard whispers a few words to Father Quintana and stirs questions of his own dramatic life in the minds of receptive spectators. An ailing woman, literally wasting away, kidnaps our attention by briefly itemizing her infirmities while clutching her infant child. Malick, the cinema’s great naturalist, nearly outdoes himself with magnificent images of sunsets in France and the American South, in a film whose true subject is visual splendor at the level of rapture.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The New World)

At 112 minutes, Malick’s shortest picture since the 1978 Days of Heaven, To the Wonder could also be called the longest experimental art film ever. This is a test, requiring rapt concentration and acute attention, and repaying a hundredfold. For spectators dulled by the midget movies of an artistically timid era, the film may be a chore. For those on Malick’s rarified wavelength, it’s a wonder.