“To the Wonder,” Terrence Malick’s sixth film in 40 years, has much in common with his last film, 2011’s “The Tree of Life.”
Dealing with some of the same themes, including a father who can’t open his heart, it also is more intimate and more immediate, without the dinosaurs or outer-space scenes of “Tree of Life.”
Oscar winner Ben Affleck stars, but not in a typical Affleck performance. Malick uses him mainly as a figure, like one of the “models” in Robert Bresson’s films, almost untouchable. The camera can’t seem to get a handle on him. It rarely gets a glimpse of his face or his reactions. His voice is rarely heard.
He plays Neil, an American environmental inspector. As the movie begins, Neil and the beautiful Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are in France. They’re clearly in love, touching and flirting and laughing and kissing.
Neil, Marina and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), return to America to live together.
But in Oklahoma, Marina doesn’t fit in. Neil becomes increasingly distant. Their relationship slowly begins to deteriorate, sometimes violently. Neil eventually reconnects with a pretty childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Meanwhile, a priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with his faith while trying to ease the suffering around him.
There is little dialogue, even less here than in other films by Malick, who relies on loose, poetic narration.
Characters let their sad, lovely, reflective thoughts tumble out, with no particular rhythm or order.
Images are filled with alternating harmonies and conflicts. Characters constantly try to connect, either with nature or with each other. Sometimes the connections work, other times they don’t. Sometimes Marina finds beauty in her new home. Other times, she’s alienated.
The film’s different sections follow suit. The very palpable texture of air, temperature, light and color in France clash drastically with the open, twilight feel of Oklahoma.
Nothing happens in typical storytelling fashion. Nothing is explained or settled. It’s a movie to be purely explored, felt and intuited.
“To the Wonder” is an example of filmmaking of the highest degree, placing Malick alongside Bresson, Kubrick and Antonioni. It is open not only to the infinite possibilities of cinema, but also to the infinite possibilities of life. While the story may be about a man who can’t love, “To the Wonder” also is a movie of unfettered, unstoppable hope.