As a fan of Terrence Malick’s work since first seeing Badlands in the early 90s, his recent spate of productivity has been incredibly exciting, even when it arrives in the form of something as flawed as 2005’s The New World. I still feel The Thin Red Line is the director’s masterpiece, where he struck the perfect balance between gripping storytelling and visual poetry, but even The Tree of Life proved a welcome experiment into the wider, looser possibilities of narrative filmmaking.
Sadly, To The Wonder falls far short of recapturing the magic that Malick’s last film achieved. Here he plunges headlong into the abyss of fragmented dream-weaving, forgetting he has a paying audience to engage or at least occasionally acknowledge, via character development, narrative structure or dialogue, for example. Instead, we have a near-catatonic Ben Affleck moping around Paris and small-town Texas, falling in love with but becoming increasingly irritated by the beautiful yet insecure Olga Kurylenko, whom he has brought to America but who now fears abandonment. Javier Bardem’s priest offers little in the way of spiritual support, while Rachel McAdams appears briefly as Affleck’s subsequent lover – although truth be told, Malick’s wavering interest in chronology makes it difficult to follow the film’s chain of events.
To The Wonder sacrifices everything in order to be beautiful. The photography is gorgeous, Texas seems to exist solely during Magic Hour, while the cast – and the luminous Kurylenko in particular – is bewitching to watch. But the film insists on keeping its audience at arm’s length, almost never giving us a way into the story, or even revealing what that story is, beyond the examination of deteriorating relationships. In To The Wonder, it feels that Malick really has nothing left to say as a filmmaker. He recycles previous tricks and effects for which he has been praised in the past, hoping to conjure something profound from this beautiful mess. But it fails him, tragically and To The Wonder proves an agonizing bore to watch, at times even infuriating, as it meanders from one non-event to the next, lingering instead on Kurylenko’s pirouetting figure or the raindrops on a window pane or the lingering glow of the sun just before it disappears for another night.
It is all rather magical to look at, but when asked to do so for two long, ponderous hours, with nothing but the incessant drone of an aimless narration to keep us entertained, our efforts become incredibly difficult to justify. Like with The Emperor’s New Clothes, the only reason we are watching To The Wonder is because we have been told it is the work of a master. But when all that is shut out and we are left in the dark with only the film for company, Malick reveals himself to be stripped bare, exhausted of what once made him great.