So there we are. Rewatched The Tree of Life and watched To the Wonder. My opinion on the former hasn't changed at all; and I'm sorry to say that I'm not even sure that watching the rest of his films deepened my understanding of that one any. Having seen anything by Malick (in my case, The Thin Red Line) is probably advisable, just so you don't go in expecting anything conventional. But too many probably would have blunted the impact. It certainly did with To the Wonder. It felt like self-parody in places. I laughed out loud, rolled my eyes, and snorted as often as I nodded my head in appreciation.
To the Wonder is a puzzling film. A lot of critics seem to be taking from it the same thing they took from Tree of Life, but I see it as trying, at least in part, to do something different. That film was largely about an ecstasy (embodied/accessed by/through the mother) that can never be effaced - the light that never goes out. This one is at least sometimes trying to be about what happens when that light does go out. Loss of faith, God, joy, love, beauty, what-have-you. That's a bold enough departure that I was swayed, sometimes. Parts of the film are undeniably there.
But I suspect (and Malick's such an auteur that you almost can't help but judge his films based on the personality they present, even if it's not real) that Malick hasn't ever actually felt what his fallen priest Javier Bardem feels. There's too much angelic twirling in the fields in this film: too much of the Wonder seeps in. So it feels like he's gesturing toward a depression that the mortals who surround him assure him exists, and that he feels he should probably try to address if he wants to get everybody to tune into the Wonder, but that in the end he's clueless about.
And again, I think it's because he's clueless about actual people. The Real Oklahoma People that Javier Bardem encounters are not presented as anything but grotesques. They speak, but just like the rest of the actors their words are drowned out by Emotive Music and whispered voiceovers by other people. They're not individuals, and in the end they're hardly human. We're certainly not invited to empathize with them as we are with Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams. And there's no in-between. In Malick's universe there are Beautiful People and then there are grotesques.
I'm starting to find myself puzzled by the cult of Terrence Malick. His films are dazzlingly shot, provocatively edited, exquisitely scored, and in so many ways different from typical film that I can understand the initial excitement. But so far he's only demonstrated an ability to do one thing, and it's not the kind of thing that lends itself to reiteration. His themes are almost childishly naïve, and his spirituality is a combination of New Age facileness and old-style Catholic mysticism. And his characters - okay, granted he's trying to deal in human archetypes, not individual characters. But what are those archetypes? Man goes out and works upon the world. Woman stays home and waxes maternal. I mean, he's utterly regressive.
I imagine Terrence Malick as the cinematic equivalent of Sarah McLachlan singing "It's A Man's Man's Man's World."