I've wrestled with a lot of movies so far into 2013 -- "The Place Beyond the Pines", "Upstream Color", "Spring Breakers", "Side Effects" -- but none more so than Terrence Malick's scrappy followup and pseudo-companion piece to his 2011 masterpiece "The Tree of Life", "To the Wonder". It's been booed at Cannes (but really, what hasn't been?) and sent up shit creek by critics and fans alike. Do I prefer "TTW" over "TOL"? Hell no. I have in my short life been part of few celebratory movie trends as the latter so incited. It's as great a movie as Malick has ever made.
But to be fair, "To the Wonder" isn't as ambitious as "The Tree of Life". Its Ben Affleck love triangle -- that starts in France with single mom Olga Kurylenko and moves to Oklahoma with Affleck's old flame Rachel McAdams -- is more in the vein of abstract wheat fields of Malick's second feature "Days of Heaven" than the three-hour opuses with which he's really made a name for himself as a true master. In hindsight "To the Wonder" still won't be seen as staggering, but it's very much a Terrence Malick film, awash in lightness, darkness, and a sense of godlike fury that borders on the religious. Plot-based or otherwise, at the core of Malick's visions of grace and form set against canvases prone to savagery and characters to spurts of violence -- be it streaked with veins of stars, the veins of drug addicts or the drive-through window of a Sonic restaurant -- is a sense of shear, unshakable cinematic discovery. Malick's films have always cultivated the struggle of giving yourself up to a higher power. "To the Wonder", perhaps more than any other Malick work to date, feels open-ended and unfinished, maybe because it's asking you to let go, and get lost, and to connect.
At one point in "To the Wonder", someone says "Life's a dream. In dream you can't make mistakes. In dream you can be whatever you want." Not WHOever -- WHATever. Attuned to sound, vision and feeling.