There are no dinosaurs. No swirling cosmos. Not even a confused Sean Penn stumbling about in the desert.
But the gorgeously impressionistic and intensely spiritual “To the Wonder” is 100 percent Terrence Malick, even though it is less ambitious than 2011’s Oscar-nominated if not universally appreciated “The Tree of Life.”
From the breathy, trancelike dialogue fragments that could have been lifted from a wispy Calvin Klein cologne commercial to the sensual scenes of undulating water caressing a shoreline, “Wonder” typifies the work of one of modern cinema’s most talented masters.
As in all Malick films – from “Badlands” to “Tree” – the wonders of the natural world carry more weight than dialogue and a linear narrative. That’s been a trouble spot for those seeking something with more of a conventional storytelling approach, and it’s the reason his work is so polarizing. That said, “To the Wonder” does represent a modest departure, a more literal-minded and accessible exploration of Malick’s favorite themes about nature, romance and faith. The changes are welcome, even if the film isn’t as powerful or adventurous as “Tree.”
“To the Wonder” does rank as quality Malick as it follows the soul-searching plights of four characters, all of whom face spiritual and emotional crises. Marina (Olga Kurylenko, of “Quantum of Solace”) is a single mom in Paris who moves to Oklahoma after she falls for the handsome but emotionally shut-off American Neil (Ben Affleck) in Europe. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) tends to the ailing and poor, but he fails to feel the compassion of Christ flow through him. And then there’s Jane (Rachel McAdams), a sad, beautiful woman from Neil’s past who briefly appears to try to chip away at Neil’s stoicism.
The turmoil swirling inside these characters is presented in trademark elliptical Malick fashion, with less attention paid to plot and more focus on mood and the stunning natural-world cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki.
The result is visual poetry that’s dimmed only by Affleck’s uncomfortable performance. As a conflicted construction engineer at odds with others and his environment, the usually solid actor (and director) never ventures beyond obvious tics, including walking around with his hands stuck in his pockets. Malick doesn’t help the actor much, presenting fewer opportunities for him to burrow into the disharmony inside Neil.
The rest of the cast, however, is remarkable. Kurylenko is sexy and passionate, and McAdams is haunted and lovely. But it’s Bardem who is outstanding. He gives a touching performance in which he unerringly reveals the deep anguish a man of the cloth experiences when disconnected from Christ’s teachings.
It’s in these scenes that “To the Wonder” ascends to a higher, more inspired plane of filmmaking. The gospel according to Malick might not be all that original for him, but this sermon remains timeless and transcendent.