Suddenly, the long-reclusive film artist Terrence Malick, the fellow who went decades without releasing so much as a foot of film, is a whirlwind of activity. Following up on his 2011 Oscar-nominated epic The Tree of Life at what is for him lightning speed, we are now presented with Malick’s To the Wonder, a gorgeously photographed drama that follows a pair of lovers from Paris to Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, we are introduced to a lonely priest who wanders from one lost soul to another dreaming of a real communion with god.
We meet Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) on the fly, as they travel around an enchanted Paris in a state of romantic bliss, often accompanied by Marina’s perky, cheerful daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). There isn’t much in the way of dialogue, but there is plenty of wistful, contemplative narration by Marina.
It’s love, so mother and daughter join Neil in Oklahoma, where the strip-mall, suburban cul-de-sac lifestyle proves less than enchanting. Neil is some kind of environmental scientist, scouring the polluted wastes searching for lead and cadmium; this allows for some lovely shots of muck and mire.
Enter Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a brooding but dutiful priest we follow from church to sickbed to prison cell, as he muses on the obligations of service and the absence of god.
Eventually, Marina and Neil break apart. Enter Jane (Rachel McAdams), one of Neil’s old flames. They enter into a romance.
Considering the lack of dialogue or any traditional dramatic scenes, the performances—especially Kurylenko and Bardem, but also McAdams—are extraordinarily moving and effective. Even more than in The Tree of Life, Malick is going for something radically different, something miles away from classical Hollywood filmmaking.
Good for him.
In the end, though, summing up the plot of To the Wonder is about as useful as contemplating the storyline of Spring Breakers. While that art film was invigorated by an audacious, nihilistic pop trashiness, Malick’s moody tale of lost loves and absent gods wears the audience down with its seemingly never-ending tracking shots and sense of inevitable loss. But mostly it’s that damn restless camera.
People run, jump, caress, and stroll, diligently followed by Malick’s ceaselessly moving lens. After 20 minutes of this—and in spite of the beauty of the images, sensitivity of the story and nuance of the actors—I wanted to run screaming into the night.
Your mileage may vary.