Blink and you’ll miss something in Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’

Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams don't speak much in Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams don’t speak much in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.”
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

‘To the Wonder’
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) globes

There’s a lot of twirling in Terrence Malick’s sixth-ever film, mainly done by actress Olga Kurylenko. Plus a precious title. Plus Ben Affleck, not really an actor who should take on a silent role, almost never speaking. Despite this, the temptation to chuckle at “To the Wonder” has been grossly overstated. There are those who have called it self-parody or a debacle — as though no pretty girl has ever twirled too much in a Malick film, or that the filmmaker has never used potentially giggle-worthy whispered narration (“What was this love that was us?” purrs one character.) This is a Terrence Malick film, in some ways the purest example of his work, in others a deviation from the conventions only he follows closely.

Kurylenko and Affleck play lovers who meet in Europe and then go on-again-off-again. Kurylenko narrates, but is temporarily replaced by Rachel McAdams, who is not long for the picture (she still fared better than Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz and a few others who were cut entirely.) Love lost may seem less weighty than previous Malick topics — war in “The Thin Red Line,” America’s genesis in “The New World,” everything in “The Tree of Life” — but Malick doesn’t treat it that way, nor should he have.

This is the first Malick entirely in the modern day; you haven’t lived till you’ve seen one of his patented florid, propulsive montages make room for a Sonic. It’s also the only one mostly in another language, despite being set largely in Oklahoma. Along with Kurylenko, who appears to be French by way of Ukraine, Javier Bardem plays a priest, the two of them searching for an ideal (love; a god) that’s forever elusive. Being forced to read the narration forces you to pay attention to it, even if it’s even more scattered and context-free than usual.

“Wonder” is more intimate and, at times, more diffuse-seeming than Malick’s other work. The religious aspect doesn’t always meaningfully jibe with the main thread, beyond a superficial connection. But let your guard down and you’ll miss something. There’s something intriguing about the gaping hole that is Affleck’s character, who almost never speaks and who is nevertheless the obscure object of desire of two heartbroken women. On a more immediate level, “Wonder” continues a project Malick began with 1973’s “Badlands” but only developed in this fashion with “The Thin Red Line:” getting inside characters’ perceptions at their most attentive, seeking to capture sensations as they’re fresh and raw.


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