Rapture, sex, heartache—they’re the oldest of cinematic subjects and we don’t lack for exploration of them. (“Exploration” may be putting it too generously in Hollywood’s case.) And who would dare give lessons in love to cosmic auteur Terrence Malick, whose movies supply us with a thicker kind of oxygen, suffused with awe and the scent of piney walks in the woods? Still, the director hasn’t really lunged for the heart in a while, not since his astonishing 1973 debut, Badlands, a lovers-on-the-run drama that felt more like a collision course with fate. Since then, Malick has taken on war (The Thin Red Line), the colonization of America (The New World) and even dinosaurs (The Tree of Life), all of them a piece with his instantly recognizable hush.
But has Malick finally found the fountain of youth? To the Wonder, his latest (and, remarkably for a guy who took a 20-year break, his third film in seven years), is the top-to-bottom romance that’s always eluded him. Like a balm, it’s smoothed out the wrinkles: You’ll blush like a teenager when you see Malick’s exquisite style attached to scenes of a beautiful couple (Ben Affleck and Ukrainian stunner Olga Kurylenko) flirting on a train, filming each other with their phones, entwining arms in a sun-dappled Paris. Strains of Wagner and Hayden underscore strolls in the park—doesn’t it always feel like a symphony when the spell begins?—and a trip to the coastal castle of Mont Saint-Michel, known as the “Wonder of the West,” is gasp-inducing.
It must end, and does soon enough, in strip-malled Oklahoma. The music fades, the fighting begins, and everything gets a whole lot uglier. (Even ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a magician with pink clouds, can’t save them.) Does Malick’s grandeur survive suburban lawns, banal supermarkets and drive-throughs? To the Wonder is the director’s first contemporary-set movie and its nearness to our own boring lives, coupled with the chest-thumping moodiness, will trigger alarms of pretension. But in the right light, it feels like a gift, a way for this most secretive of artists to say: Yes, I know that love sweeps you up in a swirl and drops you down, spinning. (Intriguingly, there’s a buried element of autobiography here, too: Malick married and divorced a foreigner.)
All of this is achieved with a minimum of dialogue but a maximum of near-whispered narration; you probably won’t need Kurylenko’s character to actually vocalize deep thoughts such as “If you love me, there’s nothing else I need.” Already, Malick has turned her into a visual motif: a cryptic ballerina smiling over her shoulder and dancing just out of reach. (Briefly, Rachel McAdams lures Affleck away in a similarly vague but deeply felt fashion.) The same goes for Javier Bardem’s somewhat unlikely local priest, sympathetic in his onscreen moments of hesitation but a bit too on the money about his loss of faith (“My heart is cold…hard”). To the Wonder is arty for sure, but for the first time, its maker is working with anxieties we all feel. Let’s hope this Malick sticks around for a while.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf