Maybe the projectionist made a mistake, because forty-five minutes into a TIFF screening of the new Terrence Malick film, To the Wonder, there was yet a mere shadow of plot. Instead: Two hundred wondering shots of light reflecting on surface. Light on rocks. Light on lakes. Light on long natural hair. It was like the reel had been switched, and surprise, Thomas Kincaid did a film.
Malick's films used to be so beautiful they hurt. Now his beauty has become ideology, relentless and inescapable, and leaves me numb. In Badlands and Days of Heaven, released in 1973 and 1978, respectively, he made two honestly transcendental American romances. In 2010's Tree of Life and this year's To the Wonder, he has descended into Romanticism. Nature is profound, magic gone, love tamed: The lifeblood of Malick films curdles into milquetoast.
For great auteurs a late career brings higher budgets and hotter actors, and sometimes, inverse credibility. But this feels more like, as Malick gets closer to death, he's heaven-bent on filming eternity.
For the rest of us, this is the year of our Mayan apocalypse, a collective death wish. Certainly it's easier to face than the election of Mitt Romney. I think that's partly why artists of many ages – like popular photographer Ryan McGinley, with his neutered, supernatural nudes – are fixated on the beautiful, transcendental, natural world over the political.
Malick, who also did Thin Red Line and The New World, isn't here to speak for himself because he doesn't do press and fears flying. That makes too much sense. Like a U.S. Wordsworth, he retreats from industrialization and technology into the past perfect, setting his films in vintage mid-America, often with heroes who've fled from bigger towns. Last shot of Badlands: a plane carrying the jailed lovers flies into the sunset, Old West-style. Last shot of Days of Heaven: Linda, her lover gone, follows the train tracks back into the forest. Now, last shot of To the Wonder: the Parisienne, having left her American husband but religiously kept his name, tra-la-las through fields like a Pilgrim in Progress, a castle in the sky beyond. There is no harmony for woman and machine here. She belongs to nature.
"I grew to love the forest," says Holly in Badlands. "The cooing of the doves and the hum of the dragonflies in the air made it always seem lonesome, like everybody's dead and gone. When the leaves rustled overhead, it's like the leaves were whispering about all the things that bothered 'em."
Holly makes her peace with the natural world - it and Kit are all she has - but it's not peaceful per se. There's a cool sinisterness in both the title of Badlands and the way it's filmed. Malick established here his modus of long voiceovers over sunshot, languorous scenes, except the voice wasn't yet the voice of God, but of a girl. Nature too was more human. It was disturbed, creeping all around, the canvas for blood-crimes either innocent or sociopathic.
In To the Wonder, nature is a forceless good. As the camera fawns over flora, voices whisper in the light: "What is this love that loves us? It is in you. I am in it. I in you. Love makes us one. You, cloud. You love me too."
It makes me want to jump into a lake of fire.
Look, Malick can believe in Jesus all he wants, but he should not have let Him take the wheel of his filmmaking. Nature as metaphor for the highest power isn't just bromidic, not to mention evolution-denying. It's false. I grew up living alternately outdoors and in church and have long felt that nature is the only thing with free will. Nature is amoral.
It also, admittedly, feels immortal. It is easy to say that because nature was here before us, and because it will remain after the sixth extinction or the zombie war, whichever comes first, it is omnipotent and thus godlike. Romantics broke with the Christian belief in human badness, but they had no less religion just a less accurate one.
It's too easy, really. Malick's sin is laziness, and it feels especially sad because he was right about nature the first time, in the Badlands of Montana. There the all-seeing forest permitted both love and evil, passing no judgment. It was nature as art, and art made it profound. Now nature is a false god and Malick a Romantic, alienated prophet who won't come down from the mountaintop. No wonder his films have no earthly meaning.