By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 11, 2012 at 8:39PM
Terrence Malick's approach to cinematic philosophizing is so consistent it often threatens to devolve into self-parody. However, he never lacks commitment to the strain of lyricism visible throughout his career. While few will deny that he sometimes leans too heavily on introspective voiceovers and majestic nature shots as signposts for his spiritual obsessions, even his transparent stabs at big ideas contain an earnest search for meaning. "The Tree of Life" was the epitome of Malick's cosmic fixations, but the comparatively muted "To the Wonder" delivers a similar collage of memories and desires in more easily digestible fragments.
Malick's first movie to take place in contemporary times regards the modern age as a desolate environment of bland roads, expansive fields and nondescript edifices -- all vagaries that suit the overarching sense that the entire experience consists of memories, some more vivid than others. There's no story save for a series of situations: Marina (Olga Kuylenko), a soul-searching Ukranian raising her young daughter alone in Paris, falls in love with traveling American Neil (Ben Affleck) and moves to Oklahoma with him. There she grows increasingly frustrated with their stationary existence, finding some modicum of solace from a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem). At a certain point Neil rekindles an old romance with an American woman (Rachel McAdams) and faces a separate moral quandary when his job as an environmental inspector leads him to discover a conspiracy. His relationship deteriorates and Marina returns home, but the possibility of a reunion isn't out of the question.
These events unfold less like exposition than individual moments that drift past within the context of a larger collage. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography once again showcases Malick's restless camera as he roams from one expressive scene to another, catching his lovers in extreme close-ups and under the bedsheets but almost never sitting still. Props in a moving picture book that keeps fluttering by, the stars of "To the Wonder" are at the mercy of Malick's greater tapestry.
A master of montage, he frequently cuts in the middle of moving shots, resulting in an experience almost exclusively defined by its pace. The actors are tangential to the universe of subjectivity in which Malick traps them: Affleck has no more than a handful of lines, and Kuylenko's words are mostly heard in voiceover. Oscillating between pristine shots of nature and intimate human interactions, Malick crafts an emotional foundation with subtle audiovisual cues; the transition from the warm affection that Marina and Neil share to the discord that ruins their relationship takes place almost entirely by way of fluctuations in Hanan Townsend's soundtrack. A single abrupt act of aggression between the couple bursts into the narrative like a firebomb.
"The Tree of Life," Malick's most experimental film to date, also relied on abstractions to convey shifting attitudes and a crisis of faith, but the massive scope of that movie has been boiled down to purely human terms here. The most dramatic image of the movie finds Neil and his former flame in the middle of a bright green field surrounded by buffalo, a sweeping encapsulation of the American dream that's still tangibly connected to the context of the narrative.
The movie's lyrical title also services the plot: As Marina recalls in the opening sequence, shortly after the couple met they took a giddy trip to French island of Mont St. Michel. "We climbed the steps to the wonder," she says, meaning the island locally considered "The Wonder of the Western World," where they find themselves in the midst of a centuries-old monastery that points to the sky. The rocky building is an obvious indicator of the Christian tendencies that populate Malick's movies, but its spiritual qualities extend beyond particulars to draw a sharp contrast between ephemeral encounters and fixed beauty. Marina's life is in a constant state of change, but the Wonder retains its holy beauty no matter what happens next. Its appearance in the closing frame affirms that much.
When Malick draws out these notions in more blatant terms, the movie loses some of its weight from overstatement. Bardem's character appears in a few instances delivering sermons but mostly just wanders around town looking somber, while expressing his commitment to Jesus in (yes, one more) voiceover. Malick is notorious for leaving loads of footage from his movies on the cutting room floor, but so much of "To the Wonder" works by evading any ideological transparency that the Bardem scenes stand out in an unflattering light.
Nevertheless, Malick's conceptual approach means that even when his movies stumble, they manage to provoke. The priest's troubled relationship with god mirrors the issues that Marina and Neil face with each other. As tensions between the two of them mount, "To the Wonder" renders the familiar terrain of romantic dysfunction on a grand scale. Malick haters may not change their tune, but at least they can admit that "To the Wonder" maintains a consistent thematic focus. There's a logic to the ebb and flow that remains cyclical from start to finish. This is Malick's world, but with "To the Wonder," he invites us in.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although it was booed in Venice, Toronto audiences were far more accepting of Malick's movie, and it has since garnered nearly as much praise as derision. The film should perform decently in limited release this weekend and has solid long-term prospects on VOD.