Oh, Terrence Malick, I’m in a quandary as to how to respond to your new film, To the Wonder. I didn’t like the movie at all—found it boring, unintentionally comical, at times even (a word I seldom use) pretentious—but I admire the rest of your work so much that I nonetheless feel the need to defend To the Wonder against the mockery it’s receiving from some quarters. After a three-decade career in which you’ve made only six films (of which at least three are, in my judgment, masterpieces), you’ve earned the right to pursue a personal, expectations-defying project like this one. And since your last movie, The Tree of Life, took place on such a grand scale—to set up the circumstances of the child protagonist’s birth, you flashed back all the way to the Big Bang in an impressive gesture of narrative chutzpah—it makes sense that your next film would be minimalist almost to the point of translucency.
I know, I know: “Minimalist translucency” sounds like it could be a good thing. When I heard snickering advance reports that To the Wonder consisted of little more than 113 minutes of stunning nature cinematography, classical music, and lovers running through fields of wheat, I shrugged off the haters, thinking: That sounds like Malick reduced to his purest essence, and I can’t wait. Instead, this impressionistic, nearly dialogue-free romantic drama plays like a high-budget spoof of a Terrence Malick movie (or, someone snarkier than I might say, a diamond commercial). Scraps of poetic, vaguely metaphysical voiceover narration (“I in you, you in me […] We are one, two, one”) drift in and out of audibility as Emmanuel Lubezki’s magic camera dips and soars over a series of stunningly lit landscapes. Lubezki (who also shot The Tree of Life) has the ability to make nature look more beautiful than God himself can (no offense, Lord). And the film’s leading lady, the lissome Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko, has a physical grace that in itself serves as testament to the miracle of creation. But after about 40 minutes of entranced gazing at Kurylenko’s fair form as she twirled through fields of golden wheat, I started to feel like Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?
I doubt there’s a critic out there who managed to get through a review of To the Wonder without at least one use of the verb to twirl, given that it’s Kurylenko’s character’s principal form of locomotion throughout the movie. I lost count of the number of individual revolutions she completed while walking through wheat fields, suburban tract housing, and the Tuileries Gardens at around 80. Marina, a Ukrainian émigré living in Paris, twirls in part because she’s madly in love with Neil (Ben Affleck), an American environmental inspector who’s in France on vacation. During their courtship, they take a trip together to Mont St-Michel, the ancient abbey near a salt marsh whose French nickname, La Merveille, gives To the Wonder its title.
The two central lovers barely have names, let alone personalities. They aren’t characters as much as vectors of pure feeling, their faces one minute expressing the bliss of romantic love, the next, its anguish. And though this depersonalization is intentional on Malick’s part—an attempt to go beyond conventions of character and illustrate a deeper truth about the ephemerality of not just love but human existence—the fact is that Neil and Marina are extremely hard to connect with, either as people or symbols. Neil, in particular, is an almost complete cipher—it’s Marina’s voice, not his, that we hear in that musing philosophical voice-over, and the camera seems always to be sliding away from Affleck’s face, as if refusing to let us get to know who he’s playing. Affleck has described Neil as the film’s “silent center” and said that he based his performance on Gary Cooper. But Affleck’s natural inexpressiveness—his constitutive just-sort-of-there-ness—doesn’t mesh with the demands of this nearly wordless role. I never for a second forgot it was Ben Affleck—two-time Oscar winner, Jennifer Garner’s husband, and Matt Damon’s childhood friend—standing stolidly yet forlornly amid all that whispering wheat.
After falling in love in Mont St-Michel and Paris, Neil and Marina relocate to the considerably less glamorous environs of Oklahoma, whose flat stretches and treeless new-construction suburbs are, once again, illuminated divinely by Lubezki. (These scenes were shot in the town of Bartlesville, Okla., where Malick spent part of his childhood.) Marina brings along her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), a precocious child of about 12 who starts out wild with excitement at the bounties this brave new world has to offer. (In one of the film’s few intentionally funny scenes, she exults in the abundance of a huge American supermarket.)
But soon—it’s not clear how much time has passed in the film’s world, since Malick’s temporal structure is fluid—Tatiana and her mother begin to bicker with Neil and with each other. When Marina’s visa runs out, they head back to Paris, disappearing from the movie for a time. In their absence, Neil takes up with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old childhood friend turned rancher who wins his heart by petting horses, wearing pearls, and let’s just get real here, looking like Rachel McAdams. What is at stake in Neil’s choice between these two beautiful, adoring women? And what does it mean when, after returning to Oklahoma without her daughter, Marina takes up with a local who’s been eyeing her rather than remaining faithful to Neil?
We never learn the answers, any more than we are able to plumb the depths of the spiritual crisis of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who ministers to the sick and abject parishioners of the town. In a series of montages underneath Bardem’s enigmatic voiceover, we briefly glimpse a few real-life drug addicts and disabled people, all of whom seem infinitely more interesting than the mopey, stylish yuppies at the movie’s center. Quintana’s crisis of faith never comes to life for the viewer; this isn’t Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, where the question of whether a man of God can come to grips with God’s apparent absence acquires the urgency of a suspense plot. Rather, the Bardem-as-troubled-priest story—to me, the movie’s weakest element—seems to be there to provide a larger social backdrop for Neil and Marina’s struggles, reminding us that their grief and loss (and by extension ours) are only part of a vast, interconnected web of joy and suffering. I’ve always loved Malick’s films for their amplitude of vision, the way they present their individual human stories as only one element in a cosmos that includes all of nature: animals, plants, rock formations, salt marshes, even the furthest reaches of outer space. But all the splendidly illuminated wheat-twirling in the world can’t anchor this substanceless love story in a recognizable human reality, much less lend it the cosmic import the director seems to intend. In the end the only lesson I took away was that it’s never smart to base a marriage on how good your partner looks coming through the rye.