To the Wonder

Terrence Malick, the idiosyncratic director of “The Tree of Life,” “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The New World,” and “The Thin Red Line,” probably has as many detractors as he has admirers. His movies tend to be untraditional, after all, and one person’s transcendent, lyrical cinematic experience is another person’s boring, plot-less slog.

The trouble with his latest, “To the Wonder,” is that it really does seem like the sort of movie his detractors say he always makes. It makes those of us who are usually admirers see what the other side is talking about. With its florid narration, non-linear structure, and endless shots of a woman in flowing skirts twirling in fields, on beaches, and in supermarket aisles, it’s dangerously close to being a parody of a Malick movie.

Which is strange, since in some ways it’s different from anything he’s ever done. It’s the first of his films to be set entirely in the present, which makes a lot of difference for a filmmaker so focused on memories and introspection. (The sight of something as mundane as a Sonic drive-thru is jarring — though, as usual with Malick, it’s beautifully photographed.) Premiering at last year’s Venice Film Festival just 15 months after “The Tree of Life” debuted at Cannes, “To the Wonder” is also Malick’s most speedily produced film by a very wide margin: the gaps between his previous projects ranged in size from five years to 20 years.

At any rate, the new film tells its story almost entirely in voice-over, with very little onscreen dialogue. It is the story of an American man, Neil (Ben Affleck), who meets and marries a French woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), with a young daughter (Tatiana Chiline). After what we gather is a deliriously romantic courtship and honeymoon, punctuated by Marina’s fawning narration — “I’d never hoped to love again. If you love me, there’s nothing else I need. Love makes us one,” etc. — the new family returns to Neil’s home in Oklahoma. Gone are the ancient and enchanting sights, natural and man-made, that surrounded them when they fell in love. Their present environment is mostly new and ungainly: housing developments, strip malls, the aforementioned Sonic.

Now that the bloom is off the rose, the couple’s relationship grows stagnant. Neil reconnects with a woman from his adolescence (Rachel McAdams), and Marina misses Europe. There is a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem) who waxes rhapsodic — in voice-over, of course; everything is voice-over — about his weakening enthusiasm for his work, though he continues to go through the motions. How he is connected to the main story I will not reveal (because I am not sure).

Let me underscore that what I have just given is a straightforward recreation of a scenario that is not presented in anything approaching a straightforward manner. “To the Wonder” has the dreamlike quality of most of Malick’s work, but more fractured than usual, more ethereal and obscure. We piece the fragments together as we go and assemble the picture in our minds as best we can.

But that process isn’t very rewarding when we’re given so little to work with. Ben Affleck, not permitted to speak more than about 20 lines in the entire film, is stripped of every ounce of charisma. Why bother casting a big star if you’re not going to let him do anything? Olga Kurylenko, lovely though she may be, is likewise neutered by Malick’s obtuseness. There is some poetry in Javier Bardem’s priest’s narrated thoughts, and when that character is on the screen, you catch a glimpse of the tenderness that Malick has shown in the past. “To the Wonder” has the aura of something insightful and beautiful … but only the aura.

C- (1 hr., 52 min.; R, brief nudity and sexuality.)

Originally published at