To The Wonder is not only a lesser work by a major filmmaker; it’s almost entirely devoid of interest. The failures are manifold. Malick’s signature devices–“deepity”-laced fragmented narration and a plot that explores emotional and physical confinement (à la Pocahontas in the final act of The New World)–never manage to lift the Olga Kurylenko character to a level of profundity. Steadicam push-ins explore Parisian parks and suburban spaces of Oklahoma, but never manage to imbue these spaces with emotional weight. The film’s ambiguous ending–Kurylenko’s voice-over with shots of Versailles (minus her) and the Affleck character’s new family life–fail to illicit sympathy or exploratory interpretation; the movie doesn’t end so much as it just stops.
The first act–the Mont St-Michel collage (I won’t say scenes)–needed to work. We needed to feel the joy of the first moments of affection, that sensation that drives the characters, particularly the Kurylenko character–to make sacrifices, to take a leap, to prostrate herself, for love. The Mont St-Michel setting was visually rewarding, but didn’t amplify the moment’s melodramatic sentiment or the thematic resonance of these early phases of love.
So, what’s worth retaining? The film’s themes. Malick continues to take interest in the limits of tacit devotion–of romantic love, one to another, and of religious faith. Kurylenko embodies both. Affleck acquires religious faith in the movie, or so it seems, perhaps for practical reasons (to retain her). And I particularly enjoyed the film’s pastiche of Diary of a Country Priest; Bardem’s scenes are far more affecting than anything else.
Speaking of Affleck, he never looked or sounded better: he’s handled obliquely, just inside the frame and often from the nose down, and because he’s given about three lines of dialogue, we’re never subjected to his incessant blinking. He’s treated as a figure onto to which one can project. Unfortunately, Malick’s movie doesn’t make much of it.