The first startling thing about Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is the very fact of its existence. After The Tree of Life was released in 2011, we might have expected that to be the last we heard of the director for a number of years, given the extended periods that tend to elapse between his films. Instead, To the Wonder appeared just over a year after his previous picture – by far the shortest gaps between two Malick films – and even as this film arrives in cinemas, Malick is already at work on two other pictures (given the proximity and cast overlap of these films, they may yet form a loose stylistic/thematic trilogy). All of which begs the question – who are you and what have you done with Terrence Malick?
The second surprise is the first thing we see. The images are grainy, indistinct, and a far cry from the breathtaking imagery that a Malick film normally consists of. It soon transpires that these shots have been captured on a mobile phone, which is wielded by an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) as he and his lover (Olga Kurylenko) enjoy a train journey. This opening immediately establishes To the Wonder as a film set in the here and now, and while one strand of The Tree of Life took place in modern times, this is the first entirely contemporary film that the director has ever made. In making this move, it's hard to deny that Malick's filmmaking has lost one of its most potent qualities. The films he has made since ending his two-decade exile from filmmaking have played out on increasingly epic canvases; the Second World War, the birth of America and even the creation of the universe itself. Perhaps it was inevitable after The Tree of Life that the director felt the need to scale back his focus, to tell a more intimate tale, but in doing so he has lost the mythic element of his previous work, and made a film that risks feeling insubstantial and flimsy. But To the Wonder does feel like a natural progression for Malick, in that he continues to push his filmmaking style further into abstraction and impressionism with every film he makes.
The characters in this romantic drama barely exist as characters; I don't believe they are even named within the film, and I only learned that they are called Neil and Marina from the closing credits. Malick is making a romantic drama here but he has chosen to omit the details that most films of this type would include as default. We are given little information about the central relationship, and instead we have to divine clues from the way they interact through their movement and body language, and the whispered ruminative voiceover that accompanies the typically sumptuous visuals. This is bad news for Ben Affleck, who has never been the most subtly expressive of actors, and in To the Wonder he often appears lost; timid and unsure of what exactly Malick wants from him. He barely even gets to share his thoughts on the voiceover track, and in a movie in which he is ostensibly the "star" (although this status is a slippery notion in Malick's films) he ends up looking like a confused passenger, while the lithe and luminous Kurylenko literally dances circles around him.
Kurylenko is an ideal muse for Malick, as she is so adept at using her body to exhibit her feelings. The manner in which her character pirouettes through fields, streets and supermarkets made me think of Pocahontas, whom Q'orianka Kilcher played in Malick's The New World, and who was similarly uprooted from her home life to try and settle in a vastly different environment. This film is far less narrative-driven than that picture, however, and it can be hard for us to get our bearings as we see episodes from this couple's alternately loving and turbulent relationship gliding before our eyes. The only hints of a plot emerge when Neil briefly begins a relationship with a childhood friend (played by an affecting Rachel McAdams) and when the film focuses on Javier Bardem's priest, whose desire to help those in need is stymied by his struggles with his own belief.
These disparate elements don't always cohere but director finds numerous ecstatic, intimate and moving moments as he and his team of editors piece them together, while Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography remains one of the wonders of the cinematic world. Of course, if the more outré elements of Malick's style tend to leave you cold, and if you yearn for the cool, streamlined approach of Badlands, then this is not the film for you. So much of To the Wonder finds Malick indulging in the kind of filmmaking that leaves him open to ridicule – his use of dance as an expressive tool, his soft-voiced internal monologues, his unswerving commitment to finding beauty in all things – but his sincerity, inclusiveness and curiosity is still enormously touching and inspiring to me, and I find it impossible to imagine that anyone but the most cynical of viewers could find nothing to connect with in his latest picture.
After finally making The Tree of Life, it feels as if a particular chapter in Terrence Malick's career has ended and a great burden has been lifted from his shoulders, with To the Wonder marking the first step in a more experimental, relaxed and prolific direction. Malick's constant evolution as a filmmaker searching for a newer and purer style of cinema, exploring our relationship with the universe around us, and questioning the boundaries of our faith, marks him as one of the most fascinating and precious artists working in cinema. To the Wonder is perhaps the most problematic film he has yet made, but its images and unusual rhythms have already got under my skin to the point where I'm itching to see it again. Terrence Malick can still create a state of wonderment like few other filmmakers.