The first dozen or so minutes of To the Wonder, the strange new puzzler from Terrence Malick, unfold like a lovely dream. With little or no spoken dialogue, two enchanted lovers (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) slowly walk through the sculpted gardens of Paris, stroll across the fabled Normandy beaches, and gradually wind their way through Mont Saint-Michel’s mystic surroundings.
Then they go to Oklahoma.
In only his sixth feature film in 40 years, writer-director Malick may be suggesting an anti-Dorothy adage: Home is not necessarily where the heart is. His story does not become a maudlin one of love conquering all despite one character, Marina (Kurylenko), leaving her beautiful homeland to land in the middle of anonymous tract housing surrounded by barren fields and oil rigs.
Instead, To the Wonder cradles a disaffected longing that can never be relinquished, either by the characters or by viewers. And, as Malick did with his last film, The Tree of Life, he paints this picture of estrangement with a moving camera, ethereal voice-overs, and a rapid succession of fleeting images that refuse to build a strict chronological narrative. Consequently, To the Wonder may infuriate and divide audiences much in the same way as Tree of Life.
In nearly two hours, the couple returns from France to the U.S., where Neil (Affleck) works as some kind of onsite chemical engineer for an oil company, while Marina is left adrift, tending to her young child. They attend a church with an alienated preacher (Javier Bardem), a character who adds little beyond having his own Malick-induced state of voice-over reflection.
Religious difficulties temporarily prevent Marina and Neil from marrying, an obstacle that leads to Neil briefly reuniting with Jane (Rachel McAdams), another diversion quickly picked up and dropped — just like in life.
Malick has made a film filled with wonder, one that seems plucked out of dreams and hidden thoughts. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki enables this vision with a succession of striking visuals, enough so that the film transcends its impressionistic tableau and instead becomes a fully pointillist portrait, made up of individual colors to create a sprawling canvas that obviously could not be captured with mere dialogue, exposition and conventional narrative storytelling.
Malick must trust his audience to go along with him to provide this rare yet not-totally-embraceable cinematic experience.
To the Wonder
Rated R, 112 minutes.
Opens Friday at the Angelika Dallas.