'To the Wonder': Twirling into Nothing

I've been something of a Terrence Malick apologist in the past, explaining to detractors why the plodding pace of The New World is just right, why the long origins-of-the-universe segment of Tree of Life is a vital burst of genius, but I'm afraid I'm out of excuses with To the Wonder.

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The people of Terrence Malick's new film To the Wonder sure are strange creatures. They don't watch TV or go to the movies or fiddle around much on the computer. Instead they seemingly like nothing more than walking in fields, just sorta ambling dreamily through tall grass and dry brown wheat, the women especially, enamored as they are of twirling with their arms outstretched and their heads tilted up toward the glowing, glassy blue of Malickian heaven. Twirling in fields is essentially what To the Wonder is about; reveling in the expansiveness of the world, feeling overcome and yet also emboldened, made special, by the beauty and majesty of it all. Or something. I don't know. Maybe it's just about twirling.

There's the thinnest of plots buried in there somewhere, I suppose. Ben Affleck plays Neil (I'm getting these names from IMDb, I don't remember them being said once in the movie), some sort of environmental impact researcher whom we first see in Paris with his girlfriend Marina (Olga Kurylenko, wide-eyed and lanky-limbed, like some kind of beautiful slow loris). They swan about the streets, gazing at old buildings and caressing one another as if in a perfume commercial. (In many ways, they are.) Then they are at rainy Mont Saint-Michel; still more caressing, maybe even a little twirling. They play in the pewter tidal flats, both in stylish long black wool coats, one of Malick's classical selections — Wagner's Parsifal, maybe — swooning around them. It's all very lovely and elliptical, but it's also so deliberate. Maybe it's just the oddity of seeing one-time J.Lo yacht partyboy Affleck now in an entirely different kind of music video, but To the Wonder, in all its modernity, feels very stagey, it's never as immersive as Malick's other films. Maybe it's all the twirling. Watching young Pocahontas poke around nature like a new nymph exploring the world makes some sense, but these modern folks in their nice coats? Not as much.

We learn that Marina has a spirited young daughter. Neil loves both mother and child, but he's not quite ready for marriage. Still, he asks them to move back to the United States with him, and they do, carrying us quickly from the pigeon-roofs of Paris to the flat brown yawn of Oklahoma. The contrast is startling, almost cruel. Neil and his new sorta-family move into a bland subdivision McMansion, a boring brick thing moored out on the plains like an outpost on a grassy, lonely moon. Marina's daughter, who doesn't seem to speak much English (not that anyone speaks much of anything in this movie), is obviously miserable, while Marina falls into a daze of wandering, while we listen to the murmured, poetic-ish voice over that is Malick's hallmark. Neil remains resolute about not wanting to get married, and so eventually Marina and her daughter return to France, leaving Neil all alone, until he runs into an old acquaintance and a new romance blooms.

The new lover, a rancher named Jane (apparently), is played by Rachel McAdams, whom Malick and his trusty cinematographer, the absurdly talented Emmanuel Lubezki (who is also the go-to guy for the marvelous Alfonso Cuarón), film lovingly as she stands in barren places and gazes soporifically at Affleck or the sky vanishing at the seam of the horizon. It's all very pretty, but we never get much insight into the nature of the relationship. Really, Jane is just filler until Marina returns, childless, and a scarring, emotionally fraught marriage begins. There's a lot more wandering, through various Oklahoma towns like Bartlesville, Pawhuska, and Tulsa, and of course through fields. So many fields. The voice over, mostly by Kurylenko (Affleck barely speaks throughout the entire picture), illustrates the terrible depth and gravity of love, but never gives us any context. There are fights, a brief affair, violent flares of anger. Not much else. Why? We're not sure. In one of the film's few moments of actual dialogue, Marina tells a visiting friend that Neil is always going away, presumably for work, but that's about it. Otherwise it's all lyrical generalities and whispered prayers.

Malick is, in most interpretations, a pretty Christian guy, and often his characters offer up wishes and prayers to the great creator who seems present in each shot of sunlight or leaves waving in the wind. In To the Wonder he gives us a more literal representation of that spirituality, plopping in scenes of Javier Bardem as a conflicted priest throughout the film. Affleck's Neil struggles with his connection to his wife, while Bardem's Father Quintana grapples with the loneliness of faith. There's a movie to be fleshed out there, but alas Malick only glancingly addresses these potential corollaries, preferring instead to let his camera continue caressing Kurylenko's lithe and willowy body, swooning at her fragile, pondering features. That may be the film's real love story. The camera adores Kurylenko, who, as a former model, is certainly comfortable bending to its will. But much like an elusive high-fashion commercial, nothing is really being said here. We have the vague, Górecki-scored story of a relationship in decline. Maybe a little cultural disconnect. Some whispering about god. That's about it. It's rather thin material for such a visually turgid movie.

I've been something of a Malick apologist in the past, explaining to detractors why the plodding pace of The New World is just right, why the long origins-of-the-universe segment of Tree of Life is a vital burst of genius, but I'm afraid I'm out of excuses with this one. There's no doubt that To the Wonder is a beautiful film to behold, but that's really all it is. There is no investigation here, no real meditation. Malick seems utterly lost in his images, and it's frankly, well, a little embarrassing to watch at times. It's long been suggested that he might want to try working with another writer to help frame his films, and here that need feels more necessary than ever before. We know that he cut Amanda Peet, Michael Sheen, Barry Pepper, Rachel Weisz, and Jessica Chastain from this movie, and I yearn for the potential plot or even hint of substance those talented people and their narrative presence could have provided. I love what Malick does in a few brief scenes with local-seeming non-actors, but we need more. Malick's pictures are big and lush and bountiful in vision, but without a narrative weight — of, say, WWII, or the conquest of the Native Americans — they blow away like loose bedsheets. To the Wonder strikes a few arresting notes, but by the time Affleck and Kurylenko started doing trust falls by the side of the road for some reason, I'd lost all grasp of what the film was trying to say. Maybe that's the real wonder of the film — it's not a noun, you see, it's a verb.

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