I really wanted to like Terrence Malick’s latest film To the Wonder, which was met with mixed reviews among critics but received a particularly strong and tantalizing review in America. Like many others, I’ve grown tired of my generation’s ironic detachment and have tried to embrace a new earnestness (or, as it has been recently coined, the “new sincerity”). At the end of Malick’s film, however, I had to admit that there was simply a limit to how “earnest” I could be—or how much of other’s earnestness I could take. A colleague who had seen the film with me turned to me as the credits rolled and asked, only half in jest: “That was a joke right? Surely it wasn’t serious?” And, frankly, with 112 minutes of montage and monologues—or, as The Detroit News accurately put it, “solemn intonations of bad poetry over open-field twirling scenes and long serious looks of love, tenderness and cosmic understanding”—there were moments in which I had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching a parody of the worst excesses of art house cinema.
The film, which admittedly has gorgeous moments, tries to both capture the ineffability of the transcendent (one of the main characters is a priest struggling with a relentless experience of God’s absence) and its welcome but unexpected appearance in the most unlikely of places. Yet, at the end of the day, Malick’s transcendence is just too easy. He’ll grant us a bit of angst but then it’s on to more footage of the female lead, Olga Kurylenko, dancing through fields of wheat, supermarkets, suburban backyards, and then more fields of wheat while the sweeping score of orchestral classics proclaims: “See? Beauty is everywhere! Beauty is everywhere! Love is everywhere! God is everywhere!” It’s not that I think this is wrong, per se—I’m all for “God in all things”—but Malick’s overpowering presentation risks turning this assertion into the inscription on a Hallmark Card. Beauty and Love and God end up being nowhere because of Malick’s unproblematic insistence on their manifest presence everywhere. What happens is not, ultimately, a transcendentalizing of the immanent—a lifting to heaven of the everyday—but an immanticizing of the transcendent in which heaven is drug down to earth even as Malick seems unwilling to grant any recognition to the earth as earth.