by Angelo Muredda For a long time, it seemed like Terrence Malick would vanish altogether before he made a serious misstep, but for better or worse, he's now delivered To the Wonder, the bum note that forces you to warily retrace a major artist's career. A muted greatest-hits compilation of Malick's oeuvre, To the Wonder borrows whole apostrophized lines to God from The Tree of Life, nicks The Thin Red Line's trick of meting out disembodied humanist voiceovers across the cast (including an underused Javier Bardem), and re-stages Pocahontas's carefree romp through the palace gardens in The New World via a young girl's joyous dance through the aisles of a supermarket. It's all here, in a manner of speaking, but as the little girl tells her mother at one point, "There's something missing."
Whatever it is, it isn't feeling: The film's diffuse chronicle of Neil, an American man (Ben Affleck) who marries his volatile European girlfriend, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and hauls her home to Oklahoma, is apparently loosely autobiographical, with rekindled old-flame Jane (Rachel McAdams) as a fictional surrogate for Malick's wife. On the surface, then, the ratio of universal prayer to personal confession in this earnest exploration of what it means to commit, whether to God or to another person, is about on par with The Tree of Life, which dealt with Malick's spiritual crisis following his brother's death. Nor is this a failure of nerve: there's an impressive leanness to the early moments, which coolly establish space and time by relying on only the barest of shorthands. It's clear that Malick took the opportunity of this comparatively minor work, set for the first time in the present and carrying little obvious historical or political baggage, to push farther with the narrative experimentation he began in Days of Heaven.
In other words, To the Wonder doesn't feel like one that got away so much as a flat miscalculation from a singular filmmaker. Malick is notoriously hard on his actors, but no one has suffered for his capriciousness in the editing room quite like Affleck, whose lines have been almost entirely expunged despite his zombified presence in most scenes, and who's consequently left to answer Marina's unspoken prayers with slack-jawed bafflement in a succession of meaningless reverse shots. When he finally musters a word, Malick dubs him over with still more untethered thoughts from the great narrator in the sky, rendering him the quintessential "Peanuts" adult--an inarticulate alien in his wife's ritualized world of promises and apologies.
Neil is a blank, a doodle of a man who's impossible to square with the benevolent deity his wife describes or the ostensible funny-man McAdams grows to love in a fleeting montage of pregnant stares before a pack of bison, but the more significant problem is Marina, who's saddled with much of the voiceover. Malick has always found a way to justify the one-dimensionality of his female characters: in Badlands, Sissy Spacek's Holly is a wide-eyed teenager in a romance novel of her own making, while in The Tree of Life, Jessica Chastain's mother is a saint seen mostly through the eyes of her worshipping son. No such excuses here, apart from the suggestion that to be a foreigner in the US is to be ever a child: Marina is just an unemployed adult who's prone to twirling through forests like a tree sprite--the ultimate Malick woman, save for her age.
A straightforward love triangle in every way but the sparse telling, To the Wonder's weakness rests on the backs of its placeholder leads, who endlessly pantomime Malick's vision of true romance, which amounts only to frolicking in the grass and draping one's face with whatever curtains or bedsheets are lying around. It's an enormous disappointment, since the film is no less astonishing to behold than his others, with typically gorgeous lensing from Emmanuel Lubezki. Because Malick is a transcendental filmmaker, always in search of moments of grace, perhaps it's best to end on one from To the Wonder, an early shot from the titular tourist spot at Mont Saint-Michel, where Neil and Marina set their feet on a sinking patch of mud that ripples and changes beneath them. They'll never get another moment as beautiful as that, and neither will we. Programme: Special Presentation