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. “Where are we when we’re there?” one character asks. 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. But unlike that film, in which the characters’ personal struggles matched the film’s towering philosophical ambitions, the human center of To the Wonder lacks urgency. The film opens with sturdy American Neil (Ben Affleck) and spirited Ukrainian Marina (Olga Kurylenko). “I’ll go wherever you go,” Marina murmurs in voice-over. Where Neil goes—and where Marina follows—is a subdivision in Oklahoma. There, Marina twirls and twirls and twirls. 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. Amid the romantic turbulence, Malick intersperses the story of a priest (Javier Bardem). As Bardem ministers to the unfortunate, these scenes feel like incongruous bursts of advocacy docudrama, with nonactors playing prisoners and hospital patients. 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.
- Running Time:
- Release Date: Monday, April 29, 2013
- MPAA Rating: R
- Critic's Score: C+
- Watch the trailer