Let me just warn you up front: I'm going to break one of my biggest personal unwritten film review rules here. I try to ignore other reviewers before I see something myself. (It's not always easy, but it's the only certain way to avoid absorbing the ideas and opinions of others and then subconsciously incorporating them into your own work.) I bring all this up because it was hard not to notice that director Terrence Malick's To the Wonder was pretty roundly panned in critical circles, an oddly vindicating development because, well, this is the Terrence Malick I've been seeing from the moment I knew he existed.
I've never understood the adoration for Malick. He's always felt like a very, very advanced film school student with an outsized trust fund to me. Maybe that's why so many critics like him, and I, someone who comes at film criticism from a relatively pure fan/storytelling perspective, do not. Yes, he's tremendously skillful on the purely artistic side of things. His shots are framed wonderfully. He captures natural beauty like few can (a scene with bison in this film stands out). His musical choices are impeccable. But to me he always come up short in the storytelling department, substituting vaguely poetic voiceovers and gorgeous rolling shots of fingers combing through stalks of grass for things like a plot and character development achieved in ways other than the whisper of a disembodied voice.
Perhaps To the Wonder is a caricaturesque amalgamation of all of Malick's most grating ticks. If it is, I certainly couldn't tell the difference between it and, say, The Thin Red Line or The New World. To the Wonder is a portrait of doomed love. Parisian Marina (Olga Kurylenko) falls in love with visiting American Neil (Ben Affleck) and makes the ill-fated decision to move her and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to a nondescript slice of the U.S. heartland. Things fall apart soon after -- the strain of the move on Tatiana, an unexplained emotional distance between Marina and Neil and another love interest, Jane (Rachel McAdams), conspiring to sour the romance.
I can't say I wasn't invested in the characters. Though Affleck has only a handful of lines and many of Kurylenko's are spoken in, yes, that tiresome voiceover, the disintegration of their relationship, at roughly the pace of Chinese water torture, resonates. It does so mostly through the frigid stoicism of Affleck and the borderline unstable mood swings of Kurylenko's displaced character. Unsurprisingly, very little that either says (whether to each other or when strolling through amber waves of grain) contributes to that emotional connection.
Despite that investment, I had had my fill of this turbulent love affair long before To the Wonder's 112 minutes were up, and the same would be true even if you scrubbed the non sequitur appearances of Javier Bardem as Father Quintana, a priest who resides in the same American town as Affleck's Neil, from the film entirely. There's probably some deeper meaning I'm meant to find, but, as with his other films, Malick makes it so obscure and abstract that it's like looking for a needle in a wheat field. Hey, maybe that explains all those walks his characters take ...