I can pinpoint the exact moment when I mentally checked out of Terrence Malick’s torturous To the Wonder and started thinking “Wankage!” It was the scene in which Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams are standing in the midst of a bison herd and nuzzling romantically, like love-struck horses. “What if the animals suddenly started to stampede?” I thought. “Are they being careful where they step? What are they doing in the middle of a herd of bison, anyway? Wouldn’t it stink to high heaven there? Couldn’t they get a room?”
To the Wonder is only Malick’s sixth film since his 1973 debut Badlands — like Stanley Kubrick, he likes to take his time — but it arrives only two years after the wondrous, transporting The Tree of Life, and it plays like an undercooked pie that hasn’t had enough time to cool. Even when they seem to be about nothing at all, Malick’s films always have a strong subtext — To the Wonder, like Badlands and Days of Heaven, is a love story — but this time, subtext alone is not enough. The movie is intentionally elusive, like a memory you can’t quite fully recall, but the result has all the depth and weight of a greeting card.
Shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki (who also served as cinematographer for The Tree of Life and The New World), To the Wonder is never less than gorgeous, whether it’s showing the sights of Paris and Normandy, where the tourist Neil (Affleck) falls in love with the single mother Marina ( Oblivion’s Olga Kurylenko), or the endless skies of Oklahoma, where the couple settles down to live.
But the Midwest, with its swaying wheat fields and picturesque sunsets, is no match for France, and the restless Marina and her daughter return home. While Neil seizes the opportunity to rekindle an affair with the Okie rancher Jane (Rachel McAdams), a local priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with his increasing lack of faith.
Bardem’s scenes are the best thing about To the Wonder — an exploration of a man who finds it increasingly difficult to believe in the things he has devoted his life to (when he marries a couple during a wedding ceremony, his gaze is distant, as if he weren’t really present). He yearns to regain his belief in God, but he can’t, because he’s tired of pretending he has feelings he really doesn’t.
The juxtaposition of the two storylines makes the movie’s intent clear — how do you rekindle faith, romantic or spiritual, once you’ve lost it? — but the way Malick handles it borders on the banal. The director keeps his main theme buried, intentionally omitting the slivers of plot that would invest you in the characters. Affleck in particular suffers a lot: He often looks like he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing, and he gets maybe six lines of dialogue, letting you know what his character is thinking. The rest is delivered via Malick’s standard voiceover narration (this time in French and Spanish, with English subtitles) and although the movie invites you to fill in the gaps, the effort doesn’t seem worthy this time.
Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Jessica Chastain all shot scenes for To the Wonder, but none of them made it into the finished film. That’s nothing new for Malick, who cut Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke, Viggo Mortensen and a host of other actors out of The Thin Red Line (and reduced Sean Penn’s performance to an extended cameo in The Tree of Life). Malick is the kind of director who finds his movies during the editing process, which is fine, as long as you come up with a picture that means something. But To the Wonder is exactly what people who don’t like Malick’s movies say about them: It’s a pretentious, lovely bore.