‘To the Wonder” is the first Terrence Malick movie to seem less than an event. It comes fairly quickly on the heels of his last release, 2011’s “The Tree of Life,” and it’s the first in a spate of projects scheduled for the next few years, an astonishing late-career surge in activity for a famously reclusive filmmaker. Malick, it seems, has finally found his groove.
Or is it a rut? “To the Wonder” is also the director’s first real misfire, a meditation on love and lost paradise that starts with breathtaking assurance and slowly crumbles into self-parody. Where earlier films stretched Malick’s unique cinematic approach onto a canvas of subject — World War II in “The Thin Red Line,” early American exploration in “The New World,” the birth of self-consciousness and the physical universe in “The Tree of Life” — here he focuses simply on a pair of lovers trying, and failing, to make their moment last forever.
Even that description is too confining. “To the Wonder” depicts the relationship of Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) over a number of years in a style that can only be called Deep Malick: whispered fragments of voice-over thoughts, staggeringly beautiful cinematography, a reverence for natural landscapes, transcendent swells of classical music. The subject, really, is ecstasy, and it can lead to ecstasy if you’re open to the notion of movies as poetry instead of the stolid prose we’re served everywhere else in our culture.
Even more than Malick’s other films, “To the Wonder” is about loss — of love, of God, of the environment, of each other. Neil and Marina are first seen swooning through Paris — a crystalline Eden of a Paris that makes Woody Allen’s look like a 5-cent postcard. They journey to the enchanted island of Mont Saint-Michel, where the tide rolls slowly in across the flats. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork makes every image seem heightened and privileged.
Neil takes Marina back to the American heartland, where she and the film are at first equally enchanted with the endless Oklahoma plains. Neil’s a geologist investigating industrial toxic seepage, though, and the poison seems to infect their relationship and the land at the same time. Marina returns to France, where Paris is now dingy and sad; she returns to Neil, and they marry. She’s dissatisfied. He’s dissatisfied. Somewhere along the way we become dissatisfied.
In the Church of Cinema, Malick is our reigning mystic — a Blakean seeker of profound essence. When his movies work (for some of us, anyway), they can lead to the rapture that comes from truly seeing, both the world and whatever creative force you believe lies within and behind it.
Yet “To the Wonder” is even more opaque than his earlier movies, and it meanders to rhythms that seem not private but self-absorbed. Javier Bardem turns up as a priest who has lost touch with God while ministering to the poor, but it’s never clear how (or if) he relates to the main story. Rachel McAdams briefly appears as Neil’s rekindled flame, parting the wheat like a prairie Venus. Then she’s gone.
Kurylenko’s Marina is the movie’s all-too-wearying heart, rhapsodizing over her love for Neil, then devolving into temper tantrums and adultery when she realizes it can’t be sustained. The camera adores the actress and Malick clearly loves the character, but Affleck’s Neil looks worn down by the final scenes, and a lot of us will share his pain. (This is far from the actor’s worst performance, but it’s definitely his least.)
Close your eyes and you can let the soundtrack choices carry you up to the heavens: There are selections from Bach, Wagner, Berlioz, and the second movement of Gorecki’s emotionally overpowering Symphony No. 3. Close your ears and you might be swept along by the sensuality of the director’s revealed world. Open both, though, and you may be struck by how easily rapture becomes tedium, the holy turns banal, and the characters’ murmured prayers ring pretentious and trite. “To the Wonder” shows a gifted maverick plunging fearlessly into his inner world and losing touch with his audience. It may be that he no longer feels the need for one. Oh, Malick, why hast thou forsaken us?