Is there such a thing as a lesser Terrence Malick movie?
After his confoundingly beautiful "The Tree of Life," I would not have thought so. But then I saw "To the Wonder," a sumptuously rendered but emotionally distant take on love and faith that has all the visual splendor of Malick's last movie without the cosmic scope.
There is a story of sorts, though Malick leaves us to piece it together from the available evidence. There is a couple, an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) and a Frenchwoman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko). They fall in love in Paris. They visit the castle at Mont Saint-Michel in France and walk on the beach together. Neil's love is so true that it allows Marina to drop her guard and let him love not just her but her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline).
Then the scene shifts from the bustle of Paris to the suburban sameness of Oklahoma. Neil has persuaded Marina to uproot Tatiana and move the family to America. He works as an environmental inspector, while Marina and Tatiana try to adjust to American life. But the love Marina and Neil shared in Paris seems to be waning, strained by the realities of work and family and his hidden demons.
We get clues to these problems through Marina's whispery voiceover, with only the occasional comment from Neil. We do see him in the arms of another woman, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend with whom he has a short affair. Jane also whispers in the audience's ear about her love and Neil's closed heart, but again Neil remains mostly silent.
The male voice Malick does let us hear belongs to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the priest at the church Marina sometimes attends. Father Quintana is torn about the good he's doing his community, and whether the love Marina and Neil claim to have for each other can be sustained without a love for (or from) God.
As in "The Tree of Life," the images and feelings evoked in "To the Wonder" are ambiguous, with as many interpretations as there are viewers.
Those viewers can marvel at the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot "The Tree of Life") and how he can make even an empty suburban McMansion shine in the late-afternoon sun. Applying those same efforts to Affleck and Kurylenko (or Affleck and McAdams) seems like gilding the lily, and those scenes have the static feeling of a fashion-magazine ad.
But what's harder to embrace is the smallness of Malick's message in "To the Wonder." After wrestling with the cosmos in his last movie, as he juxtaposed childhood memories with the Big Bang and the age of dinosaurs, centering on the petty squabbles of one impossibly handsome couple left this viewer wanting something more.
'To the Wonder'
Terrence Malick's latest dreamscape, following the flush of new love and the disappointment that follows, is more gloss than substance.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas
When • Opens Friday, May 3.
Rating • R for some sexuality/nudity.
Running time • 112 minutes.