Since his first feature, Badlands, through Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree of Life, Terrence Malick been bewitched by, and bewitched us in turn with, light: gleaming, harsh, merciless, tender, beautiful light.
In his latest movie, To the Wonder, light, almost but not always from the sun, caresses the faces of Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Ben Affleck, and is consistently kinder to them than any of them are to each other. But it also shines down on an America decidedly un-dreamlike, a post-modern Grant Wood suburbia of pointed roofs and fruitless plains. Just down the road, it illuminates beat-up houses with eviction notices tacked to their front doors, battered chairs and ruined carpets jumbled together in front, broken, scarred people asking, with the shredded dignity they’ve been able to retain, for some sort of meaning.
Providing that meaning falls to Javier Bardem, playing a character that, in another movie, would shed his priestly robes to ravish the ravishing Kurylenko as her marriage to Affleck disintegrates. Bardem instead walks quietly through the different landscapes before him. His parish nearly empty—the sun pierces through the jewel hues of magnificent stained glass on a handful of mass attendees—he attempts to provide a solace that he, himself, does not know. His eyes speak a language of desolation. How, in this soulless terrain, can God or grace exist?
That quest for absolution that leads to peace served as the foundation of Tree of Life, and in many ways To the Wonder feels like a continuation of that movie, as if Malick, like Bardem’s character, wants to assure us of the existence of grace in order to accept it himself. For its unapologetic spiritual exploration, Wonder has received reviews nowhere near the ecstatic reception of Tree; you can get all God-y once, but don’t do it a second time and not expect the American film elite to get a tad squicked.
For the viewer, professional or non, uncomfortable with any metaphysical debate that might end up acknowledging the existence of God, Wonder will be cause for unease and its logical offshoot, derision. Critics have indeed jeered, whining that the movie doesn’t move. If you listen to them and skip it, you will miss some extraordinary filmmaking, which, whether or not you agree with Malick, should blow your bloody doors off. Early in the movie, Affleck and Kurylenko play on the beach of Mont St. Michel, the sand sucking precariously at their feet; later, as their relationship founders, Affleck’s job site provides a similar surface, but this time the downward pull nearly defeats him. Kurylenko dances and spins through a radiant Paris, barren American fields, a grocery store; she’s a woman who will simply dance through life, often in sorrow, but also because it’s the best way to take in the tremendous beauty that she is able to see everywhere. Rachel McAdams, painfully misused in Midnight in Paris, here shows with her bottomless eyes love, loss, and bewilderment, in a brief middle movement that is all the more powerful for its lack of resolution. Because of her scenes, “What happened?” hangs over the rest of the movie like Charles Ives’ unanswered question, haunting and familiar; we’ve all asked it, and not received any kind of satisfying answer.
Wonder has an ambitious structure, like a Mahler symphony, within which images flash like ribbons, or half-remembered musical phrases snatched out of the air like fireflies. Surrounding that is a framework as carefully and symmetrically composed as a Greek temple. There is no waste, and neither is there any rush. The ultimate aim is God, or light, which in the vocabulary of this movie seem to be interchangeable. The three principals seek it in each other; Bardem, on his parallel track, tries to find it in the people he meets on his rounds, an increasingly futile and depressing task as they face ever-larger obstacles. Interactions with literal prisoners are strategically placed throughout the movie, a deft comment on those who are only technically free.
To not spoil, the movie ends on a resolute note of where the light is. It’s a bold statement in times when the mere mention of belief in God or anything resembling God is belittled, when prominent atheists limb out the world in terms as black and white as any that their zealot fundamentalist enemies use.
One can take Malick’s thesis literally, and that choice will leave you disappointed. Take it instead as a door similar to the one at the end of Tree of Life. You can see that door, which is open, as a challenge. Or you can see it as an invitation. Malick provides a gateway to see something beautiful, a truth that transcends our human limitations, that maybe will provide peace. It’s worth a shot.
Light, in the end, is a kind of a miracle. Yet it surrounds us at all times, there for us to seize, unfraid. That is, indeed, a wonder.