Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life overflowed with voice-over narration. His new film is practically an audiobook. Actually, "audiobook" is misleading: That would suggest To the Wonder's voice-over helps establish plot, character or scene. No, the whispered flutters are more existential poetry than anything else, opaque and fragmented thoughts about love, spirituality and truth. We hear about "an avalanche of tenderness." At another point, we learn that "love makes us one." Other musings are even foggier: "Where are we when we're there?" one character asks—in French to boot.
Viewers may feel a similar sense of mystification during To the Wonder. Malick's metaphysical themes and radiant imagery have earned him cultish disciples, but his films arrive slowly. This is only his sixth feature in almost 40 years, yet it comes a mere two years after the unabashedly grand Tree of Life. Like that film, To the Wonder brims with exquisitely composed shots of nature: ocean waves, golden prairies, sparkling sun. For better or worse, the new film features neither dinosaurs nor the Big Bang—but there are some large sea turtles as well as a giant herd of bison. But unlike Tree of Life, in which the characters' personal struggles matched the film's towering philosophical ambitions, the human center of To the Wonder lacks urgency.
Malick's subject here is love, both within a couple and between people and God. The film opens with sturdy American Neil (Ben Affleck) and spirited Ukrainian Marina (Quantum of Solace Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), who meet and fall in love in France. Malick captures the swoony beginnings of their romance amid the Gothic architecture and tidal flats of Mont-Saint-Michel (that island's abbey, known as the wonder of the West, lends the film its title). The two leap across the sand, dialogue supplanted by Marina's French-language voice-over. "I'll go wherever you go," she murmurs.
Where Neil goes—and where Marina follows, with her 10-year-old daughter—is a subdivision in Oklahoma. There, Neil collects samples of soil, water and hair to investigate some sort of toxic seepage, and Marina twirls and twirls and twirls. She twirls through wheat fields and parking lots and grassy lawns. She twirls down supermarket aisles, grabbing a broom and tossing toilet paper in the air. She twirls inside their sterile prefab home. Kurylenko—who must have grown awfully dizzy during filming—is gorgeous and lissome, and at times her beauty threatens to overwhelm the screen. Affleck's stolid face, meanwhile, is mostly absent. The only thing more absent than his visage is his voice, because Marina and Neil don't have conversations, or at least not any to which viewers are privy. For a film about love, Malick provides few clues about what draws his characters together and drives them apart.
Marina goes back to France at some point, during which Neil reunites with Jane, a childhood friend (Rachel McAdams). Jane says Neil makes her laugh, even though it's implausible that such an unspeaking lug could do anything of the sort. Marina returns to Oklahoma, where she twirls and frolics some more.
Amid the romantic turbulence, Malick intersperses the story of a priest (Javier Bardem) experiencing a crisis of faith. The priest's loneliness and confusion are palpable as Bardem sermonizes and ministers to the unfortunate. But these scenes feel like incongruous bursts of advocacy docudrama, with nonactors playing the prisoners and hospital patients Bardem visits. The narrative strands don't knit together, and the parallel between the priest's doubt and Marina's melancholy is forced.
Despite To the Wonder's soundtrack, which includes rapturous Wagner and Bach, I found the film more akin to a lullaby. Gauzy images, elusive narrative, fluid timeline, lots of whispering—it's all quite pretty but also pretty sleepy. "Where are you leading me?" Bardem says in voice-over. His sentiment is clearly aimed at God, but I would have liked to direct it at Malick.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: To the Wonder is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.