Love and the Cinematic Art of Terrence Malick
Guilty of crimes against things like dialogue and coherent plot structure, Terrence Malick’s cinematic masterpiece “To The Wonder” redefines the rules of the love story as told through film.
There are two types of cinephiles in the world today: those who find Terrence Malick’s films to be exasperating and those who revere him on a level that is nearly religious. Something similar — although not quite as pronounced — could also be said about Jean Luc Goddard, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and a few other film directors who stand on the far left side of the art-entertainment spectrum. Despite their many stylistic differences, each of these directors is broadly accused of crimes against the mechanisms of linear story-telling and the standard three-act structure of traditional Hollywood movies.
The case against Terrence Malick is that his films are long and plotless and incomprehensible. This charge is difficult to defend against, even for his most ardent supporters. Not all of his films fit into this description, but it’s true that many of them do, especially his more recent films. His great crime is being lyrical and profound at the expense of dialogue and coherent plot exposition.
There are two problems with this judgement. The first problem is the assumption that dialogue and plot exposition are the ends, rather than the means, of a film — which is not the case. The ultimate objective of a film is to effectively simulate a lived experience, to illicit a ride of emotions. And if this ride of emotions can provoke new understandings about a person’s place inside of his or her life or the universe, all the better.
The second problem is the assumption that dialogue and linear storytelling are the most effective means to reach this end. Terrence Malick’s films openly challenge this assumption. The great question among film critics and cinephiles alike is: does he actually pull it off?
As Exhibit A, I refer to Malick’s film To the Wonder, released in 2012 amidst a blend of effusive praise and disgruntled head-shaking. In a career that is already comprised of a series of landmark works, this is another one. It is a film that changes the rules of how a love story can be told with moving pictures. But before we get to that, some background on Malick’s cinematic evolution is in order.
It must first be said that not all of Malick’s films entirely break the cinematic laws laid forth by Hollywood. In his first two feature films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), he used all the techniques that would later become his trademarks — lyrical cinematography, a contemplative orchestral score, and ruminating voice-over — combined with a fairly straight-forward narrative structure. In both stories, the rise and fall of love (or something like it) competes with the overarching beauty of the natural world as the dominant theme. In Badlands, a charming, deranged man takes his underage girlfriend on a crime spree through the wide open spaces of 1950s South Dakota and Montana. Days of Heaven is about a love triangle in the idyllic wheat fields of Depression-era Texas.
In the wake of these two films, both of which were critically adored, Malick famously went dark for two decades. After a twenty-year hiatus, he came back with The Thin Red Line (1998). Although the vagaries and carnage of war serve as the subject of this film, he somehow managed to use this story as a canvas on which to paint one of the most gorgeous and lyrical films ever produced. But the narrative is still chronologically structured and the plot line is easily followed. During the early years of World War II, wary American soldiers — men who are barely older than boys — traverse through the Edenic tropical paradise of the Pacific islands where they encounter hell on earth. Impossibly opulent natural beauty and abject human horror come together in a cinematic tone poem.
After a seven year hiatus, the next film Malick directed was The New World (2005). Lyrical cinematography backed by a contemplative orchestral score is still in full force, the ruminating voiceover is once again liberally applied, and narrative chronology is left intact, but the structural lines start to blur a bit. The action is presented in a series of fragments. Exploration, conquest, love and loss are once again framed in the eyes of the natural world — this time in the forests, swamps, and meadows of colonial Virginia circa 1600. In both The Thin Red Line and The New World — which each qualify as cinematic masterpieces in the minds of many cinephiles — Malick is still technically playing within the rules of conventional narrative structure. But he is clearly testing the boundaries, evidently preparing his escape.
Malick’s next hiatus lasted six years, culminating in The Tree of Life (2011), winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year. Here, his signature cinematic style reaches full bloom — for better or for worse, depending on who you are. Lyrical cinematography and ruminating voiceover are as strong as ever, and narrative structure has almost completely dissolved. The story — which begins at the Big Bang and ends in the Afterlife, with a very long interlude in the tree-lined suburbs of 1950s Middle America — is told in much the same way that the mind recalls memories, which is to say, seemingly without pattern.
The claim leveled by his detractors is that this approach is disorienting, and of course it is. It’s also mesmerizing and, in some ways, far more representative of life than the three-act structure of conventional Hollywood films. The Tree of Life moves the way that memory moves, which is not linear. Rather, it meanders and jumps and skips and turns back on itself. Often it picks up halfway through an event and cuts off before it ends. He tells the story by way of weaving a tapestry comprised of poignant fragments of life — those vivid moments that crystalize in our memory and come back to us at odd times of the day or night. But in the Malickian universe, most of these fragmentary memories just happen to be beautifully shot, often during the golden hour.
The Tree of Life marks the beginning of a relatively prolific period for Malick. It was followed by a trio of films — To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and Song to Song (2017) — all of which adhere to a unified cinematic style that stands apart from the work of pretty much everyone else in the film world today. In each of these films, lyrical cinematography reigns supreme, ruminating voice-over almost entirely replaces dialogue, narrative structure is nearly nonexistent, and the wonder of the surrounding world occupies a position of equal standing with the human drama that unfolds in its presence.
This is not to say that these films lack a story. It’s not like an Andy Warhol film where nothing actually happens (e.g., Eat and Sleep). Things definitely happen in Malick’s films — things ranging from the tender and tellingly mundane to the shocking and profound. Ultimately, what he gives us is a ride of emotions that bounces through the air like a butterfly, periodically alighting on a poignant moment that is bathed in beauty and that resists the effort of the mind to wrap its meaning up into a tidy little box. It is an invitation to feel the human experience rather than understand it.
To the Wonder achieves this effect specifically on the subject of love — namely, its rise and fall and the ever-present threat of loneliness that lurks beneath it. If you have not yet seen this film, stop reading this right now and watch it, then feel free to come back and read this afterwards. The best way to receive a film like this is to first let it wash over you. Don’t worry about the analysis until later, which is what this is. It is an analysis and also a celebration of a singular work of art and a gorgeously unflinching examination of love.
Here’s the story: an American man (Ben Affleck) and a French woman (Olga Kurylenko), who is the single mother of a 10-year-old girl, fall blissfully in love in moody Paris. He brings them back home with him to a bland suburban subdivision in rural Texas, whereupon he basically falls out of love with her and sends her and her daughter back to Paris. This is just the first part of the film. There is then a brief interlude in which he falls in and out of love with another woman (Rachel McAdams).
The end of this second relationship happens almost exactly at the halfway point of the film, almost right down to the very minute. Everything that we have seen thus far — the meteoric rise and fall of two relationships, as told through imagery and voice-over — has occurred in only 57 minutes of running time. This is where the Terrence Malick detractor can probably stop watching this film, if he or she has grown tired of it. But for the Malick devotee, this is when you buckle up your seatbelt and prepare for one of the most exquisitely painful expositions of love in the history of cinema.
She comes back to him from France — presumably upon his invitation. This time she’s without her daughter, who chose to stay behind and spare herself the pain of watching her mother go un-loved. As we are told in voice-over, the French woman’s time in Paris was a personal disaster. She returns to the bland subdivisions of Texas as a broken woman with a still-broken heart, which for her is tantamount to a broken wing.
This is the man’s chance to be the savior and nurse her back to her inherent loveliness, and initially he seems to take this task to heart. They even get married this time. At first it’s a nearly loveless legal ceremony in front of the justice for the peace, which is later followed by an actual wedding in a church, with a white wedding dress and a ring and all of the optimism of a visit to the dentist. They move into a new house, together they sadly shop for washing machines.
In almost all of Malick’s films, love is depicted as something that is never in balance, and this imbalance is where pain arises. The only Malick film which depicts something that seems to qualify as true love is The New World — and there it is shown not only once, but in two different forms, although imbalance is still a feature of at least one of them. Then later, in Song to Song, there is the makings of true love, the promise of it, but imbalance ultimately takes hold and the outcome is pain. And in Knight of Cups, the promise of love frequently shoots up into the sky, like a firecracker, and immediately explodes, disappearing into smoke — which is perhaps the less painful approach to love. The heart is never broken, only the soul is left to die.
In To the Wonder, there is no such explosion. The film opens with the man and woman already deeply in the throes of infatuation, which sparkles for a while and then quickly starts to fade for the man but not for the woman. The rest of the film is the very long, slow death of a relationship that was, in a metaphorical sense, diagnosed with a terminal illness fairly early in the film. The one common ground that these two characters share is a willingness to resist this diagnosis — gallantly or foolishly, depending on your perspective — until the very end. Therein lies the beauty and the pain of this work of art. To watch their love die is like watching a person slowly die, with all those little starts and stops and moments of hope and remission and relapse.
But how is all of this told? Not through dialogue. There is very little direct dialogue in the entire film. We only hear a handful of phrases that are exchanged between them, and even these are often intentionally muffled or obfuscated. Sometimes we only see them talk but we don’t hear it — their conversation is entirely muted. Instead we are asked to glean our information from their facial expressions and their gestures, the distance between them as they walk, how their bodies move.
And it works. In Malick’s hands, this technique often does a better job of conveying emotions than words do, and the reason for this is grounded in human nature. When lovers argue, the argument — at its core — is almost always about something entirely different from what the two people are actually saying to each other. Malick picks up on this, and by muting the words, he’s inviting us to look at whatever is sitting underneath the argument, which is usually something much deeper, more basic to our nature — things like rejection and fear and unsatisfied desire. The words themselves are merely the clothes those baser emotions wear on any given day.
On top of this, we are treated to the musings of their souls as communicated through voice-over. Malick’s detractors are quick to call this a self-indulgent ploy — as if these film critics, themselves, don’t live with a running commentary inside their own heads like the rest of us. Malick thankfully doesn’t give us their entire inner monologues. He distills it down to the most essential, the most telling, and often it comes in the form of a question. It is like their souls are having a dialogue, but not with each other. It’s more like some other force — the creator, the mind of God, whatever you want to call it — is the arbiter of the conversation and we’re somehow listening in.
For example, “Enter me. Show me how to love you,” she says in voice-over while walking away from him on the sidewalk. As she twirls in the supermarket: “Do you want me as a wife? A lover? Companion?” She doesn’t dare say this out loud. It’s what she is thinking, and we hear it. His crime is that he never answers that question — he just lets it hang there in the air while she patiently waits and slowly withers.
And then there is the movement — as in, balletic movement, of both characters and camera, even during scenes in which ostensibly not much is happening. People are frequently spinning, running over grass or pools of water, walking aimlessly while looking upwards, rolling around on the ground — children as well as fully-grown adults. Bilge Ebiri, film critic at The Village Voice, wrote “To the Wonder is best understood as a dance performance — one in which the silent characters’ ceaseless, stylized movements say more about what is happening than any dialogue or plot point ever could.”
Interestingly — though not surprisingly — To The Wonder was largely shot without a script. Every morning Malick would give the actors pages of thoughts and independent lines, and he would ask them to play the emotions mostly by using their bodies rather than words. What we get, then, is the physical portrayal of the coming and going of love expressed through, for example, twirling. In To the Wonder, as in some of his other films, twirling is Malickian short-hand for the act of feeling blissfully infatuated with a fellow creature of Creation — akin to a screen adaptation of the biochemistry of dopamine. There is arguably more twirling in this film than a whirling dervish tutorial, which is not a complaint. If asked to metaphorically depict the act of feeling love, the image of Olga Kurylenko’s character twirling in the grass — her dress fanning outward and her beatific face turned to the sky — is difficult to beat.
But To the Wonder is not merely an extended music video. There is a story here. It is the story of the meteoric rise and long, slow death of love between two people who — like most of us — are merely doing their best to flee from loneliness. Thematically, it is the examination of love itself, but not love in the highest sense. Rather, the emotions at hand are more in line with attachment and detachment, the biochemical high of infatuation followed by the come-down, and jealousy and wandering eyes and a lack of self-love from which arises the compulsive need for acceptance by someone else. And all of this is packaged in beautifully-framed moments, from shot to shot to shot, overlaid onto a hauntingly melancholy musical score that is as gorgeous as the fading light at dusk shining off of things like trees and Parisian cathedrals and the fur of free-range buffalos in the Texas grasslands.
Character arcs are another element of story-telling that is not forsaken by Malick in this film. Of the three main characters, it is the French woman that this film most closely examines — her outer physical movements and how they correspond to her inner life. One of Malick’s many strengths is his casting, and nowhere is this more evident than his choice of actress for this particular role. As played by Olga Kurylenko, the French woman (she is never referred to by name in the film) is as lovely and almost as lovable as a girl can be. In fact, she is the very archetype of the lovely girl.
The word “girl” rather than “woman” is used here intentionally. Although this character is aged somewhere in her late 20s and is the mother of an older child, in the first half of the film she is — in many senses — not yet a woman. In the Malickian universe, it could even be said that she is the modern-day reincarnation of the character played by Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World. The difference is that Kilcher’s character is the noble princess of a great leader, with her own power to match, whereas Kurylenko’s character is more in the vein of a shopkeeper’s beautiful daughter — a Cinderella of the 21st century petit bourgeoisie.
The beatific woman is, in fact, an archetype that appears in possibly all of Malick’s films. The immature seed of it can be seen in Sissy Spacek’s character in Badlands, grows more pronounced in Brooke Adam’s role in Days of Heaven, and achieves its highest expression in Kilcher’s character in The New World. Jessica Chastain plays the role in The Tree of Life, and Natalie Portman does it in not one but two of Malick’s films — Knight of Cups and Song to Song. Even in The Thin Red Line, a film which is primarily populated by American and Japanese men fighting a war, we catch glimpses of the beatific woman waiting on the home front.
In To the Wonder, we have the pleasure of watching the beatific woman dive head-first into love and then suffer for it — very touchingly, I might add. Her extreme loveliness is not merely gratuitous, for it also helps shine a light onto the fundamental flaw at the core of their relationship. How better to illustrate a man’s incapacity for love than to present him with a woman who is the embodiment of loveliness, and have him turn away from her? The point, here, is that he’s incapable of loving her not because of any fault of her own. Nor is it necessarily his fault. It is merely a fact of the modern human condition, in which we are not only alienated from other people, but also from ourselves and from that thing inside us where loves comes from. In other words, there is a fatal disconnect — especially among men — with the heart.
“What are you afraid of?” she asks him, on the cusp of making love. This is basically the question that the entire film is predicated on. We don’t hear his answer in this scene, nor do we ever hear it — we can only wonder. Is she too girlish for him? Too needy? The question is irrelevant. If the lover isn’t capable of truly loving anything or anyone, then it doesn’t matter how lovely the lovee is. There is no possibility for a bridge to be built between two souls when at least one of them — if not both — suffers from this internal blockage.
This fundamental flaw is further illustrated through the man’s vague job. From what we glean — of course we are never told — he’s some kind of environmental inspector. He spends his days testing water and soil samples that have been contaminated by some unnamed industrial pollutant, and the people who live in the area are getting sick. He knows this, and seems to tell them about it, but there’s nothing he can really do about it. He is powerless to change the problem — just like he wants to love her completely but doesn’t know how. He is impotent in the true sense of the word.
The decline and fall of their love is not, unfortunately, a steady thing. Sparks of it routinely return — in the form of pillow fights and lusty wrestling on the carpet and lying together sweetly on the grass in a park. This point brings us to yet another Malickian hallmark worthy of mention — erotic prudishness. In a refreshing departure from the high-carb meals served by Hollywood films, Malick’s depiction of sex and lust is subtle and artful and implicit. Some of the most erotic scenes in all of his films — including this one — don’t include any kissing or naked body parts. He is somehow capable of achieving a high pitch of sensuality with nothing but the movement of hands and eyes.
The greatest example of this, and arguably the strongest scene in the film, is the adulterous afternoon in the cheap motel. By this point she is so obviously thirsty for love, but not in a self-indulgent sense — rather, in the sense of a person wandering alone in the desert without any water. Her first choice for the provider of the water is her husband, and occasionally he gives her big drinks of it, but in decreasing portions that are spaced out at increasing intervals. This is what brings her to a cheap motel with a random man whose greatest offering is the way he looks at her.
The entire sequence with the random man could be cut on its own and screened as a devastatingly effective short film. We see her, as she navigates this flavorless foreign world of parking lots and commerce, quietly thirsting for affection. She is hungering to feel something, and so she momentarily latches on to him as the short-term answer. He drives her to the motel in his pickup truck. When she follows him into the room, she trails many steps behind him, like a woman who knows she is about to lose her virginity and she’s not ready for it yet. Thus begins a short but intensely erotic scene.
We first see them silently standing in an utterly bland and beige room, still fully clothed. We see in her face everything that’s playing out inside her — the desperate need for passion and connection and self-validation versus shame and guilt and uncertainty. She does not immediately give herself to him, and he knows this. She waits — uncertainly but openly — for him to seduce her. And this is what he does. To his credit, he does it very softly, almost in reverence. He seems to be aware that he is in the presence of a fallen angel, which is his one redeeming quality.
For most of this scene, there is no music and there are absolutely no words. He touches her hair and her stomach with the very tips of his fingers, and lets her do the same on his bare tattooed chest. Still wearing all of her clothes, he rolls her over onto her stomach and softly kisses her neck, with the glimpse of mundane traffic through the window behind — and that is all. And yet it is as erotically charged as any scene you will see in film today. What is most erotic is not the action itself, but the way in which she gradually gives in to it, like a flower reluctantly opening on one of those first false days of early spring.
In lieu of showing us the act itself, instead we suddenly see her hand twisting in the glint of sun for a few quick seconds, then it abruptly cuts to her standing alone in the motel bathroom with a bedsheet wrapped around her. She walks to the window and sees the random man walking across the parking lot to his truck — ditching her. She does nothing histrionic like cry. She merely puts her clothes on and silently leaves the motel and does a day-time walk of shame along a busy road, a nation of cars driving by without even taking notice of her.
This scene happens toward the end of the film, and it represents the completion of her fall from the giddy heights of infatuation to the very bottom of the trough, where even her innocence is laid waste. All of this is accentuated by the keen cinematography of Academy Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki. When she first walks into the motel room, the camera is inside the room aimed at the open door, beyond which is the outside world during a cloudy day. We see her move from the relative brightness of outside and then cross the threshold into the darkness of the room. She is backlit by the sky, thus the front of her body is cast in shadow as she enters, and afterwards she carries that same shadow with her as she leaves alone. Even the violently heart-broken Matoaka (i.e., Pocohantas) in The New World doesn’t suffer a fate as harsh as this. Matoaka is abandoned and her heart is smashed, but at least her innocence is always left intact.
Not so for the French woman. But who is to blame for the violation of her innocence? It is true that she is the one who throws herself over the figurative edge, and it is also true that the random man is the one who invites her to stand at the precipice. But it is Affleck’s character who points in the direction of the cliff and then looks away. This is the ultimate crime for which she cannot forgive him. It is worse than abandonment because it is somehow colder.
To the Malick detractors out there, who criticize him for an apparent lack of character development, please take note. The French woman in this film is a textbook example of a hero in the Greek Tragedy sense. She is a fundamentally noble character whose tragic flaw is her headlong dive into love at the hands of a man who is incapable of loving her.
Next to her stands her foil, in the form of Rachel McAdam’s character — who we shall call “the other woman,” for she is also never referred to by name. The other woman has a much different blueprint for love than the French woman does. Whereas the French woman — who is airy — dives headlong into love without giving any thought to what lies below, the other woman — thoroughly grounded despite her Bible talk — stands at the edge of the platform and keeps nervously turning around. She does not want to jump.
And for good reason. The only piece of backstory that we’re given about the other woman is that she once had a daughter who died. Thus she has already been broken by love. She comes to the man as a weary woman, and wearing her armor. But she wants to shed this armor. She wants to fall into love but she’s not willing to jump without visual confirmation of the safety net laid out below her. So instead she approaches love by slowly leaning into it. Seducing her is like trying to feed — with a beckoning outstretched hand — a wild animal who is prepared to bolt any moment. Which, of course, is like nectar for the man. The game of seduction is his preferred method of evading emptiness, so long as nothing is consummated.
Again, most of this is told through images rather than words. In this entire film, there are no less than five scenes in which people walk through tall grass. It’s a common motif in Malick films, harking back to Days of Heaven and put to equally good use in The Thin Red Line and The New World. In one such scene in this film, the man and the other woman are in a field of pasture grass in the middle of a docile herd of buffalo in the act of grazing — during the golden hour, no less. It is a visual representation of how these two people react at the precipice of love.
In a sense, McAdam’s character is probably a better match for the man, because her fear of love is just as great as his. We already know that her character has suffered at the hands of love once before and we assume that at some point Affleck’s character also did, and now this majestic beast is coming ‘round again to tantalize them. They’re both afraid to surrender to it but nevertheless they keenly feel the power of it as it gets closer to them. They walk in the midst of it just as they do through the herd of buffalos — cautiously, quietly in awe, aware that at any moment it can crush them.
We don’t see the definitive end of his relationship, we only see the moments that lead up to it. He tries to win her heart all the way up until the moment in which she finally gives in, whereupon he almost immediately backs away. The two of the them literally circle each other in a horse paddock while we watch the internal tug-of-war inside her — the deep-seated wish to surrender versus the deep-seated fear of letting that happen.
Eventually the former wins out, but only barely. When she finally gives herself to him, she even says it in a tone resignation. “I trust you,” she says, distrustfully. Then she says, “I want to be your wife.” When it comes time for her to say “I love you” she can barely bring herself to say it, at first she only mouths the words. Then she says it more definitively, and that is the beginning of the very quick end for them.
We don’t see him say anything to her in return, we can only guess he says no or else says nothing. Then we see her immediately retreat from him — as in, physically she backs away from him the way you would from an angry bull, or the scene of a crime. This is the point which both of them always knew was inevitable — the end of the affair. The very next scene we see her crying, alone with her horses in a field. We hear her voice say, to herself, “Walk away.” And this is what she does. And we applaud her for it.
If ever she had any doubt about her decision to leave him, McAdam’s character would be wise to watch the second half of the film, whereupon all doubt would be utterly erased. But she doesn’t need that proof — she already knows it. In just fifteen minutes of running time, she was able to see what it takes the French woman the entire film to fully accept. In one final voice-over, McAdam’s character levels her verdict on the man. “I thought I knew you. Now I don’t think you ever were. What we had was nothing… Pleasure, lust.” And with that, we never see or hear from her for the rest of the film.
The man’s relationship with McAdam’s character is a perfectly self-contained interlude that begins without any warning and then ends just as abruptly. In fact, the sequence is so self-contained that theoretically it could be entirely cut from the film and the main story would be left intact. And yet, this interlude needs to be there, because it tells us the single most important thing that we need to know about Affleck’s character — namely, that he chronically uses the simulation of love in the attempt to fill his internal void, and it doesn’t seem to be working. Right after we hear the other woman’s verdict, the very next scene is the French woman standing outside the door of his house. She is back for round two of the gorgeously long, slow death of love.
This brings us back to the hero’s journey. A tragedy is only tragic if there is catharsis, and this film has it. In Malick’s next film, Knight of Cups, it’s not clear if the main character ever reaches catharsis. In fact, it could be said that the entire purpose of that film is to show what happens when catharsis eludes you.
To the Wonder is more generous with us. There is no catharsis for the man that we can see, but it’s the French woman that we’re worried about. She begins the film as a quasi-angelic embodiment of the feeling of love, and then later we watch her suffer for it. The way she bears her cross makes us sympathize with her even more, for she does not cry and she rarely complains. She only feels her suffering, and she feels it completely. She holds on to hope until nothing is left, and then keeps holding on for a little while longer.
In most films, you root for the lovers to stay together. In this film, you pray for them to end it. She finally figures this out. “Weak people never bring anything to an end themselves. They wait for others to do it,” is what she says in voice-over. By this point we have given up on the man, for he is evidently too far gone from that thing called “the heart,” but there’s still hope for her. We believe there’s still a chance that whatever died in her is not dead for all time, that it can one day grow back. And we’re right about this. What Malick shows us at the very end of the film is the very beginning of that regenerative process.
At the conclusion of the film there is one final field-of-grass scene. This time the grass is browned from winter, it’s cold, but there is still beauty in those trees without leaves. I know I’ve already thoroughly over-analyzed this film, so I will at least do Malick the honor of not deconstructing that last sequence. The final minutes of this film should be received on its own. But just one little point to make — did someone say there is no character arc here? The whole movie was built to achieve that one moment of acceptance at the end. This film ultimately isn’t a love story, it’s a growth story. And it ends with catharsis in the golden hour.
There is an endless number of movies that depict the act of falling in love. There are also a large number of movies that show what it’s like when it doesn’t work out. But there are very few films that unflinchingly look at the process of falling out of love. Some of the other films that come to mind on this subject are Blue Valentine by Derek Cianfrance, Closer by Mike Nichols, 5x2 by François Ozon and, in a more playful way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michael Gondry — each of which are unforgettable in their own right.
Malick’s approach to this subject is — not surprisingly — very Malickian. He closely examines the pathology of falling in and out of love but without being the least bit clinical about it. He elides over the details and instead captures the gestalt. The details are certainly there, but they’re not quite in focus. What Malick is really looking at is that great big ineffable thing that underlies the details. This is what we’re invited to feel.
And what we feel, generally-speaking, is wonder. This film, like all of Malick’s films, is grounded in a sense of awe at the incomprehensible process that we call life and all the stuff that goes on inside it, of which love and the death of love are among the most perplexing features. To the Wonder is ultimately not a critique of love or human nature or anything else. It’s more like a time-lapse photography sequence of an impossibly beautiful perennial flower rising up from the ground and exploding into full bloom and then very slowly withering and dying, with the understanding that next season it will once again sprout and bloom and wither and die. It is a filmmaker’s way of saying: welcome to life on earth, in all of its glory and complexity and unanswered questions. Or, in the words of a lovely woman walking in a field of grass, speaking to the sky: “Love that loves us…thank you.”