If Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder contains a thesis shot, it is of the character the credits call Marina (Olga Kurylenko), walking or running through a field, looking back over her shoulder at the camera. Often, she is looking back at the character the credits call Neil (Ben Affleck). I mention the credits because I’m reasonably sure that neither Neil nor Marina are referred to as such during the movie’s brief bits of dialogue, which are often hushed, trailing off, or absorbed into the classical music, because this is, after all, a Malick film.
It is, more specifically, the fastest-gestating Malick film in 40 years. In the past, somewhere between five and 20 years would elapse between his releases, but To the Wonder is coming out less than two years after his 2011 triumph The Tree of Life (and was ready even earlier; it played film festivals in fall 2012). While that film mixed childhood memories with the creation of the universe, To the Wonder simply observes bits of relationships, mostly romantic, in the present day — Malick’s first entirely contemporary film.
Despite the vast differences in scope, To the Wonder does feel like a stylistic companion piece to the prior film: a moody, intimate EP to Tree‘s sprawling concept album. Working once again with gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick employs one of the most recognizable visual signatures in current cinema, a camera that floats around and close to the characters with disarming intimacy. In Wonder, especially early on, the camera follows Kurylenko so closely that Affleck’s face is cut off in the many shots they share. It feels like Marina’s point of view: Neil is there, but hard to see.
Or maybe that’s Malick’s point of view; he seems to have cut many of Affleck’s lines. From what we can piece together, Neil meets Marina while living or vacationing in Paris. After a time, she comes home with him to Oklahoma, bringing along her preteen daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). Of the two lovers, we learn slightly more about Marina, mostly that she is free-spirited and spiritual, as she is given most of the standard communing-with-nature shots, with plenty of the aforementioned running and dancing. To match Kurylenko’s exuberant twirling, Affleck gets a signature pose of his own: standing with his hands in the pockets of a zip-up sweater. Marina and Neil do not marry, but I am certain I know what their wedding photos would look like.
More things happen, elliptically. Neil reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), someone he knew from childhood. Neil and Marina grow apart. Boxes of their possessions go from one house to the next, but no one ever seems to unpack and none of the houses we see really feel lived in; there are evocative shots of Neil and Marina on different floors of the house, drifting in and out of half-empty rooms, and another of Neil putting on socks straight from a moving box. Both characters spend a little time with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local priest who gets bits of Malick narration to himself.
About that narration: there is a lot of it, and it lacks the distinct voice of Malick’s earliest films and the cross-sectional reach of The Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life. Mostly, it’s Kurylenko’s Marina, musing, flirting with profundity. For example: “Love makes us one… two… one.” I understand what Malick is getting at here, and the phrasing has a certain poetry in context (even if it invites a clarifying question about whether love makes us 121). But frankly, Malick is such an expressive visual storyteller that I’m not always certain why he bothers with the whispers of voiceover poetry. In To the Wonder, the technique becomes particularly tired and unnecessary, especially with Kurylenko intoning away in subtitled French, asking questions like “What is this love that loves us?” When the free-spirited writing-by-editing skirts this closely to self-parody, you might wonder: is Malick messing with us? Or did someone really just ask for clarification about a feeling’s feeling?
Even if the movie occasionally looks or sounds like parody, though, there are moments you can’t expect or predict, stemming from Malick’s way with images. Even a relatively slight affair like To the Wonder overflows with memorable sights: Tatiana dancing down the aisles of an American supermarket, ecstatic over its cleanliness, or the same little girl, jabbing her finger into the water of an in-ground pool, while the camera hovers just below, or Neil and Jane, cornered in a herd of buffalo on the plains.
Sometimes, that’s all Malick will give you; the movie demands that you get on its wavelength. Or rather, it suggests you get on its wavelength, and if you don’t, it will just twirl away without you. Performances, then, become beside the point — something else that sets it apart from Tree of Life, which featured powerful work from Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt. Here, Affleck’s Neil stays remote, the source of his relationship conflicts as obscured as his face. McAdams has movie-star magnetism, but her part is all suggestion, no ascribable motivation.
Kurylenko is the least-known, least-prestigious of the three (most of her credits are genre fare; she has the confusing distinction of costarring in both Hitman and Max Payne), and has the most to do. She shows plenty of expression and passion, sometimes recalling Pocahontas from Malick’s The New World. But she’s more idea and emotion than full person, seemingly by design. For better and worse, To the Wonder is embodied by that repeated shot of Marina running ahead: close, vivid, just out of reach.