To the wonder of critics who have bemoaned his less-than-prodigious output – five features since 1973 – philosopher-turned-movie director Terrence Malick has released his second film in two years, the aptly titled To the Wonder.
For devout Malickites, the good news will be that it is forged from the same robust materials as The Tree of Life (2011), Malick’s epic dissertation on man’s Jobian place in the universe.
It has the same visual lyricism, the same reverential obsession with the natural world, the same rejection of conventional narrative schematics, the same thematic wrestling with the ineffable. For serious cineastes, it will probably offer a meaty meal.
For casual filmgoers, however, these parallels also constitute the bad news.
Anti-Malick forces – and they are legion – will doubtless see To the Wonder as yet another exercise in solipsism. Chary of exposition, meagre of plot, derisory of dialogue, indifferent to comprehension, it’s a project that veers perilously close to self-parody.
What passes for the storyline may be quickly summarized. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl, but gets another girl. Boy gets first girl back – she is fickle – but then loses her again, God alone knows exactly why. Damn, life is complicated.
The boy is Neil (Ben Affleck), a petroleum engineer of some kind, though he rarely seems to work. Monkishly taciturn, very good at the meaningful jaw thrust and the morose stare, he endlessly wanders around his Spartanly furnished house, thinking about something.
The girl is Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a lissome French beauty given to pirouettes. She pirouettes through the streets of Paris, where romance always blossoms. She dances gracefully across the tidal flats near glorious Mont Saint-Michel, France’s authentic limestone and granite Wonder.
Later, she pirouettes through the sun-drenched fields of Bartlesville, Okla., near Neil’s soulless new suburban home, where she alights with her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana. Indoors, she wanders moodily through half-empty rooms.
The film might have been called To the Wander.
Neil follows in her wake, mute and stolid. The stones of Mont Saint-Michel are more emotive. Why does Marina leave him? It’s no wonder.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is lush and evocative, but not nearly enough to compensate.
Neil must have a weakness for swirling women. When Marina decamps for Paris, he takes up with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. She, too, hasn’t seen a patch of grass through which she doesn’t want to take a spin.
Malick’s overriding theme, articulated here as in The Tree of Life in hushed voice-overs, is the enduring mystery of love. What ignites that magical flame, and why is it so hard to burnish?
Malick being Malick, the same questions have a spiritual dimension, manifest in the character of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). The Catholic priest tends diligently to his flock, struggling blue-collar Americans literally poisoned by the oil industry’s relentless engines of progress. But his faith is withering, his sermons empty of conviction. If God is loving, how can He abide this suffering, this injustice?
Apparently, whole layers of the projected storyline did not survive the editing suite. Actors Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Barry Pepper and Amanda Peet were all part of the original script. Their footage ended on the cutting-room floor. Lucky them.