Even more so than his previous film, the bombastic and all-encompassing Tree of Life (TMT Review), To the Wonder finds famed recluse Terrence Malick further narrowing his focus on refining his personal film language instead of on specifics of plot or character. Deliberately eliding major plot points to make room for just one more lilting image of Ben Affleck nuzzling the statuesque Olga Kurylenko, his new offering ends up being the most concise and holistic formulation of the capital-A auteur’s vision yet. Unfortunately, this particular film doesn’t do his particular vision many favors.
The nominal plot mostly revolves around Affleck’s and Kurylenko’s character’s (whose names are never actually revealed in the film) debates as to whether or not they should, like, get married, or have a kid, or just fuck other people or whatever. Grand and theological visions of faith, love, and betrayal are wrung out of the mundane non-specifics of their will-they-or-won’t-they-ing, while Malick busies himself with his wandering, deliriously digressive camera. To the Wonder’s deliberately bare bones plot means that the director’s auteurial stamp is doing all the legwork, and one must concede that it’s often shockingly unique — the man’s all but invented a new mode of editing over his last two pictures — but all this hewing away of specificity also leaves us with little but the director’s Grand Themes to mull over, which, in the final appraisal, prove almost comically hollow. It doesn’t help much either that those Themes hinge on a dated and narrow image of the American Mythic Ideal. With Affleck as a Ken-doll-esque wanna-be rancher and Rachel McAdams as a spit-shined cowpoke, the film’s grand look at the American Experience feels woefully out of touch.
If nothing else, To the Wonder proves that specificity was the one thing keeping the Malick oeuvre afloat. Days of Heaven got by pretty well on its period picture resonances and even the pleasantly inane Tree of Life had the the giddy lunacy of dinos and big bangs to offer some heft to the whole affair, but To the Wonder lets its whispered voice over platitudes just sort of hang there on its wisps of plot, with lines like “What is this love that loves us?” conveying a sense of more of just laying the word LOVE in all-caps on a table and not much more. And yet, it gets worse in the few moments when actual specifics do crop up. It’s unfortunate when Javier Bardem’s conflicted priest visits some addicts and cripples who never serve as much more than window dressing, ugly counterparts to our radiant leads, and even more so when what appears to be a fracking subplot rears its head for a brief moment with the sole effect of giving Affleck’s American individualism something to bury its head in apart from the underside of Olga’s chin. There’s a nasty undercurrent here, in that Malick seems intent on subsuming these travesties into the generalized flow of his theological vision, treating them as mere stepping stones on that path to Awe.
At its best, To the Wonder does achieve something of a modern reworking of a classic melodrama — lurid in technique but not in content — that is to be commended, but as innovative as Malick’s camera dances and editing bravado are, they never reach the affective heights of top-notch melodrama. There’s pleasure to be found in the maudlin over-the-topness of it all, but more often than not, the next image of hands grasping towards the ineffable offers little more than just, well, more hands grasping towards the ineffable.