I have rarely enjoyed watching Terrence Malick’s movies. But I really wouldn’t want to be him. When you’re a reclusive perfectionist who has made only six movies in some 40 years—with gaps of six, seven, even 20 years between—each new project is received as a holy tablet. The pressure must be enormous: There are only so many ways to photograph the sun winking through the trees. Does Malick ever dream of making a romantic comedy, an Adam Sandler movie, a talking-animal comedy? Is it in Terrence Malick to make something loose and crazy?
To the Wonder, Malick’s second movie in the remarkable span of two years, is too awkwardly manicured to qualify as loose. It’s ridiculous, pretentious as hell, and in places laugh-out-loud funny. “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night . . .” With dialogue like that, in voice-over and in French, who needs satire? To the Wonder is also Malick’s least polished and least accessible—if still predictably obsessive—film. No wonder the early tweet reviews pouring in from Venice, where the film debuted last September, bristled with WTF.
But for all the absurdity, there’s also something strangely touching about it, maybe because for once Malick has allowed himself to be unsure. To the Wonder is an irresolute piece of work, a sketchbook of a movie, one made by a human being rather than an august master. And it does have a plot, albeit one that could well have tumbled out of a saltshaker: A man and a woman—it would be better if Malick had gone all Chris Marker and refused to give them names—have met and fallen in love in Paris, where the man, perhaps, has been temporarily stationed for work. The woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), is besotted with the man, Neil (Ben Affleck), and at first the feeling is mutual. There are many shots of the glamorously morose-looking Marina whirling ballerina-style for Neil to appreciate.
This kind of “I’m alive! With life!” twirling is a Malick trademark: Jessica Chastain did plenty of it in The Tree of Life, and it figures in the sun-and-corn love story The New World, too. Lissome Marina spins in the sunlight, in massive American grocery stores, in the not-so-glamorous house in the heartland to which the not-so-romantic Neil whisks her, her young daughter (Tatiana Chiline) in tow. But you can’t blame Marina for dancing as fast as she can: She wants Neil to marry her, but he’s evasive. He grows tired of her; his gaze begins drifting. He packs her and the kid into a taxicab and sends the duo back to Paris before reconnecting with his old friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), a sturdy but superfemme rancher clearly better suited to Midwestern life.
You might want to know that there’s almost no dialogue in To the Wonder, beyond the voiceover narration of Marina, Jane, and Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, the local priest in the little town where Neil and Marina live. Father Quintana is having a crisis of faith, and he stumbles moodily through the movie, trying to heal and comfort crackheads, though nothing he does seems to have any effect. He’s also the repository for Malick’s usual “What is the meaning of life? I know not!” patter and pondering, which is the least interesting thing here (or in any Malick movie, for that matter).
To the Wonder might be more experimental, but it’s still all Malick, a filmmaker who can’t see the forest for the craftsmanship. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki serves up boilerplate-beautiful trees and wheat fields: If Godard had directed a ’70s feminine-hygiene ad, it might look like this.
But To the Wonder is less arduously shaped than other Malick films, and that’s what makes it feel more heartfelt. This is an attempt to get into the heads of women in love—or at least for Malick to work out his own ideas about what women are like when they’re in love. Affleck’s Neil, uncommunicative by design, is barely a character here—he’s really just a jaw. Mostly, we see Jane and Marina revolving around him, thinking aloud every minute, trying to dissect their own feelings even as they attempt, with little success, to guess his. They talk, via interior monologue, almost all the time; he says almost nothing.
These women speak repeatedly of wanting to be married, of yearning for a rather retrograde security. They also say things like, “What is this love that loves us? That comes from nowhere, from all around?” No wonder Neil seems most at home when he’s tromping through the fields, doing his unspecified “serious man’s work,” which apparently involves investigating dangerous substances seeping into the earth and the water supply.
Still, these women tug at his sleeve. “Love me!” they implore, but what they really want is something so delicate they can’t put it into words. And so they make the mistake, as women sometimes do, of putting it into too many words, and possibly the wrong ones. Meanwhile, men—even some very modern, evolved ones—retain the luxury, with all its accordant pain, of keeping it inside.
Malick is working faster these days. As Ryan Gosling, appearing in a forthcoming Malick joint, recently told The Playlist, the director is “cutting like five movies right now.” Will working faster loosen Malick up, freeing him to make more mistakes and, possibly, some glorious messes? With To the Wonder, he may be aimlessly dancing around old stereotypes. But he’s dancing as fast as he can, and the strain means something. He hasn’t made a great movie. At least he’s made a human one.