When writer/director Terrence Malick released The Tree of Life in 2011 it was his first film since The New World, in 2005. It was also just his fifth feature since 1973. Then all of a sudden this reclusive, mysterious and profound if not prolific filmmaker had a follow-up in production for release the very next year. To the Wonder, which had its premiere in 2012 and has just recently received a wider distribution, is, to say the least, a complex picture, as with all of Malick's work, and it may be his most abstract film to date.
Essentially, the film follows Neil (Ben Affleck, in a nearly mute performance) as he struggles to maintain a relationship with, first, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French woman with a young daughter whom he brings back to Oklahoma, then Jane (Rachel McAdams), a former lover who reenters his life once Marina leaves. Neither relationship runs smooth, and as with The Tree of Life, Malick intercuts the domestic strife with reflections on the world, on God (Javier Bardem as Father Quintana gives voice to these issues), on family and, most prominently here, on love. There's no real story to speak of. We're simply following these individuals as they go about their life, from setting to setting in one situation after another; some locations figure into the (loose) narrative, some seem to serve merely illustrative purposes.
"Merely" doesn't really do the imagery justice though. Just as he's become known for his oblique structural devices and his incomparable use of the voice-over, Malick is also a preeminent visual stylist. His compositions and camera maneuvers are breathtaking. One wonders how he captures such moments of splendor and transcendence, or how he even thought to film such imagery to begin with. To the Wonder has less of a conventional story than anything he's done before, but it is a sight to behold, and in most cases that's enough.
To the Wonder has had its fair share of detractors. It has not been largely well reviewed to this point (notably, one of the most positive pieces on the film came from the late Roger Ebert – it was his last review). I can't help but feel this negative reaction isn't really a result of the film itself though. Had this been his first film in six years, perhaps it too would have received some of the laudatory praise that The Tree of Life did. I'll admit that the 2011 film is a better picture (it was my favorite movie from that year), but with a Malick film it almost seems as if too much of his distinctive and challenging style is a drawback for some. In small doses, they're able to accept his atypical narratives, theoretical divergences and formal boldness, but two films in two years...that might be pushing things (I think not). Given that two of its main characters also speak in foreign languages (and another minor character speaks in a third), it's also possible that the film may feel too much like a foreign film; certainly, portions of dialogue sound reminiscent of something by Godard, Resnais or Antonioni. This blending could prove troublesome for those used to a clear dividing line between American films and those from another country, and the cinematic attributes that go along with each.
For me personally, I don't think To the Wonder will hold as high a ranking as The Tree of Life did by year's end. Frankly, I hope it's not the best film I see this year. But it's a worthwhile movie, an impressive work of art, and one that's going to be unlike anything else released anytime soon, or at least until the next Terrence Malick film. Amazingly, he does have three other projects currently in post-production, two with a 2013 projected release date. Too much Malick? Certainly not for me.