Nothing lasts. For all of his movies’ sweeping, poetic grandeur, Terrence Malick has spent the last 40 years exploring and investigating that simple sentiment over and over. Ever since his 1973 debut, “Badlands,” which looked at the fleeting romance between an outlaw and his girl, this reclusive writer-director has eulogized life’s impermanence with a poignancy few of his contemporaries can match.
“To the Wonder” is not Malick’s first attempt at chronicling the ebb and flow of a relationship, but it may be his most heart-rending. We only understand the blurry outlines of the courtship, but an American, Neil (Ben Affleck), falls blissfully in love with a Ukrainian named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while in Paris. Bringing Marina and her young daughter back home to the States, Neil couldn’t be happier—until a strange iciness falls over him, creating a distance between himself and Marina.
As with Malick’s recent films, “To the Wonder” is moved forward not so much by plot as it is by an intuitive emotional through line, Malick incorporating Marina’s voiceover narration as a glue that holds everything together. We hear her thoughts and feelings, and later we hear the same from Jane (Rachel McAdams), a rival love interest for Neil, and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local priest bedeviled by religious doubt. This intimate-yet-swooning drama is concerned with how devotion—romantic or spiritual—fades, leaving its participants stumbling to regain something that once felt palpable.
Because Malick’s films are so much about the experience—the sensuous swirl of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work mesmerizes throughout—it can be easy to overlook the cast. “To the Wonder” leans toward elemental, somewhat monotone performances, which may create the impression that there’s little acting going on at all. But Affleck’s stoic Neil can be seen as an echo of Brad Pitt’s ’50s father from Malick’s “The Tree of Life”: a strong, quiet man whose deep feelings are smothered by a masculine inability to express them. Bardem’s challenge is even mightier, portraying a man of wavering faith who is mostly alone onscreen. But the soulful resignation of both actors is tangible all the same.
If there’s a complaint with this lovely film, it’s that Malick doesn’t give his female actors the same care. McAdams beguiles as Neil’s old classmate who stirs fresh passions, but the character is little more than a device to set in motion the romantic triangle. As for Kurylenko, she overdoes Marina’s girlish innocence, risking reducing Neil’s great love to an overgrown child. Nevertheless, in the face of the dreamy melancholy caressing the film, such quibbles feel minor. You may not always understand why these characters enrapture each other so, but Malick’s spell is such that you give yourself over to it anyway.
Critic’s Score: B+
Directed by Terrence Malick
Cast by Chris Freihofer
Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem