The film begins with a series of film-photographic images, taken from a variety of sources; they are at once a reflection on the transition from film to digital as well as the transitions in people’s lives. By this end, the viewer is found in the midst of a meditative narrative that comments on the impact that the notion of God—or spirituality—has on one’s life. Its interdependent nature—that one’s thinking about God causes God to be a part of one’s life—is considered in Malick’s search to find nature in man. His search has never been quite so clear as in To The Wonder.
Malick’s signature editing is firmly in place, as he takes continuous flow jump cutting—what he mastered in Tree of Life—to a further degree. When this unique form of montage is in effect, Malick’s films have a certain power, or character, that is not found anywhere else in the cinema. The scenes retain the ebb and flow that one might find naturally in the experiencing of physical reality; unlike the ordinary jump cut, these don’t have a disorienting effect—the viewer is kept in tune with the movement. In spite of this, all the energy once found in the short takes and quick cuts of montage cutting is built within the image. The rhythmic time is moreover kept steadily in tune with the dynamic and fluid affect of the musical interludes.
To give a deeper impression of this, let’s look at an example. A woman prances forward—as one does in a Malick film. The camera too tracks forward, perfectly aligned with the woman. In a mere few seconds, three editing points are found. These are not so much transitions between images, but movements in framing of the same image. The camera continues the track forward, the woman continues to prance forward, but editing points have moved the woman ever so slightly amidst the frame, perhaps making her slightly smaller or bigger in the process. Since the camera’s movement is made progressive, even positivistic, by the continued movement into the next shot, there is no substantial change from the spatiotemporal continuum that the viewer is privileged with. It has a similar effect to the long take, except that moments have been taken away. It’s as if one is watching the event in real time yet, by blinking, one misses brief moments of change.
This interpellation of change, fluidity, and dynamism is fundamental in Malick’s aesthetic. In that brief moments are sequestered, the film is built from a series of movements rather than a continuous whole, and yet the series of movements complete a whole. In a sense, the editing parallels the natural images found in the scenes. Water droplets are shown to build, one by one, into a continuous stream, just as, one by one, the series of images build to a reality. In that a continuous flow is built, and yet change—even discontinuity—is intended, the images can only be interpreted by an attentive yet open, if not transparent, mind. For example, when sound bridges keep a person’s conversation in real time, yet continuous flow montage estranges the person’s movement from their voice, the viewer must continue with the narrative progress—the content—yet remain detached enough to apprehend the formal conveyance of the ebb and flow of life. This is the key to accepting and thereby enjoying a Malickian film, particularly his most recent, and formally affective, pieces.
While the film begins strongly, with a profound sense of energy, To The Wonder reaches a point of saturation about midway. With the appearance of Rachel McAdams, the film loses some of its intended affect—perhaps the viewer has been spoiled by this point. The cinematic sensibility once appreciated and distilled by the viewer becomes altered as if a metabolic change has caused a disruption in the flow of images. Towards the end, the original discourse of Malick’s meditation is reinstated, and to great effect, with visions of the earth reflecting the sky. By its final moment, To The Wonder, has given the viewer an enriching an exhaustive experience. Religious underpinnings aside, the film boldly deems to evoke an aspect of human life that is difficult to express; the spiritual-human dimension is blurred and the primordial nature of man seeks to be found.