Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder is the work of a director who now views himself as a holy poet of cinema. The film’s style is ethereal and incantatory, with a soundtrack woven out of whispers and classical music; if anything, it makes Malick’s The Tree of Life look like a Noël Coward play. Ben Affleck, with barely a line to speak (he’s used for his chiseled masculine presence), plays a man overseeing the construction of a Southwestern suburb as remote as a moon colony. He’s fallen for a single mother from Paris (Olga Kurylenko), and Malick features the two of them in a dartingly inquisitive handheld-camera pas de deux. On holiday, they travel and wander and caress and love. The first part of the film is like a moody existential Hallmark card.
Then Affleck brings Kurylenko, along with her tween daughter, back to the States, where we behold an unfolding psychodrama: closeness followed by spasms of anger, then a reconciliation, then a separation (spurred by Kurylenko’s visa expiring). All of this is the stuff of drama, but Malick stages it as a series of fragmented, mostly nonverbal moments. ”How had hate come to take the place of love?” asks Kurylenko in voice-over, and you’d think that would be an important question, but the movie never answers it.
Through the character of a saddened priest (Javier Bardem), Malick seems to be saying that the reason for our breakups, for our fragmented lives and relationships, is that we can no longer see God. If we could, we would be whole again. That may be true, but in To the Wonder, it’s Terrence Malick who isn’t letting his characters be whole. B-