Starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. 14A. 112 min. Opens April 19.
The sometimes decades-long gaps between Terrence Malick’s directorial efforts may frustrate his most ardent loyalists (while, of course, enlarging the publicity-averse auteur’s mystique). Yet the delicate and intricate nature of his best features—be it his Dust Bowl tragedy Days of Heaven (1978) or 2005’s The New World, his rapturous retelling of the Pocahontas story—suggests those gestation periods have often been necessary.
It’s hard not to feel that To the Wonder needed a few more years in a barrel. Apparently targeting viewers who found The Tree of Life too talky and plot-heavy, the suddenly prolific Malick returns with the haziest movie of his career. A romantic melodrama interspersed with a ham-fisted rumination on faith, To the Wonder charts the tumultuous relationship between an environmental scientist named Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), the mercurial Parisian who comes to live with him in his native Oklahoma. As their attempts to provide solace for each other and for Marina’s 10-year-old daughter grow more fraught, they repeatedly come together and drift apart in an assortment of fields, meadows, and sun-dappled rooms.
Neil finds further comfort in a relationship with his old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Meanwhile, Marina crosses paths with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a glum priest whose doubt-filled talk of the Almighty comes to occupy prime real estate in the ubiquitous voiceover narration that remains one of Malick’s stylistic tics.
Fragmentary to the point of being formless and devoid of any motivation or momentum, it’s the first of Malick’s works to feel more like a sketchbook than a film. With its equally haunting views of suburban and rural spaces, the gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki ensures that it remains a very handsome sketchbook. But the innumerable shots of a twirling Kurylenko and its many laborious pronouncements about love and loss yield little of the epiphanic wonder that Malick’s faithful have come to expect of their own god.