It's probably best to see Terrence Malick's To the Wonder or any Terrence Malick movie — or any movie, really — with diminished expectations. Two years ago when Malick released The Tree of Life, only the fifth feature film in a career going on four decades, the rapturous reviews produced a critical lock step that kept a lot of viewers away or, worse, sent them in with chips on their shoulders. Who can blame them? Nothing spoils a cold viewing of Citizen Kane or The Rules of the Game, entertaining movies both, like loudspeakers blaring "The greatest film ever made!" on your way into the theater.
So I'll try not to raise anyone's hopes for To the Wonder, which was greeted on last fall's festival circuit as weak Malick — though singling out the weakest movie by the writer-director of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life sounds like complaining about Mozart's least tuneful opera. The big knock against the movie so far is that it verges on self-parody, all ponderous voice-overs and classical gas and people running like Maria von Trapp through fields of waving grass. And to be sure, those elements are present.
But as Steve Erickson has pointed out, the problem isn't that Malick's movies look like shampoo commercials; it's that shampoo commercials now look like Malick's movies. That's what happens to a filmmaker who develops an original and arresting visual style. The easiest thing to copy (or mock) about Malick's filmmaking — the items mentioned above — is probably the least impressive thing about To the Wonder, in which an artist who has spent his career making period pieces arrives firmly in the here and now.
And by here and now, I don't mean some gauzy, indistinct present. I mean the king of magic-hour lighting and burnished bygone Americana trains his eye on the suburbia of strip malls and sprawl that we drive through every day on the way home. (Through the lens of Malick's marvelous cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, a Sonic at nighttime becomes a jewel box of hot bright color.) Immediate and impressionistic where The Tree of Life strove to be monumental, To the Wonder essentially covers the trajectory of a rocky relationship from Mont-St.-Michel to the Oklahoma prairie, as Neil (Ben Affleck) and the French émigré Marina (Olga Kurylenko) cycle through breakups, reconciliation and mutual infidelities.
I will not pretend this isn't the film where the limits of Malick's let's-find-it-in-the-editing-room approach to structure, character and resolution are felt most keenly: at the lovers' willful comings and goings, at the lack of concrete character detail, at the director's occasional reduction of actors to props that populate his treasured tropes. (Faring worst is Affleck's rancher love interest, Rachel McAdams, posed stiffly among bison as if awaiting a Garden & Gun pictorial.)
And yet the wonder of To the Wonder is how much Malick, who made his early mark as a writer, conveys without words. A simple repeated camera movement of characters rushing toward something, only to be cut off in an ecstatic upward tilt of the camera (mind you, this lasts maybe a second or two), trumps pages of dialogue about a yearning for spiritual connection. This R-rated, frankly carnal movie, so rapt in its appreciation of flesh warmed by sunlight and lust, is also the most explicitly Christian film in theaters, with Marina's Middle American isolation juxtaposed against that of a stricken priest (Javier Bardem, whose silences are harrowing) wracked by doubt, and the suffering and squalor in his parish.
Ecstasy and alienation are the twin poles of Malick's work, which has morphed considerably from the chilling ironic distance of Badlands to the awestruck semi-autobiographical Tree. To the Wonder may be the director's most problematic film, but it's also the one that evokes those sensations most piercingly. The dizziness caused by a new love's kiss, the impulse to put your fist through a wall as a breakup nears: Malick makes elation and frustration as tangible here as a honky-tonk song. A signature shot in Malick's movies, repeated here, is of a woman in a swing poised between earth and sky — the human condition relayed in a single soaring image. To the Wonder is studded with moments that are boundlessly suggestive and evocative. It's not perfect, but sometimes the imperfections of Malick's movies can help you see their surrounding glories more clearly — as clearly as the neon buzzing atop a Sonic, straining into the night.