It's a long way from Oklahoma to France, but Neil (Ben Affleck) made the journey to travel through Europe, and while he was there he met ballet dancer Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and they fell in love. She already had a daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), from a previous relationship, but Neil was besotted with her and they spent all their spare time together, even travelling from Paris to Normandy to see the attractions there. The couple didn't wish to be parted when he returned home, so they began to draw up plans to see to it that they would never be...
Terrence Malick, formerly unimpeachable as a cinematic talent and to think otherwise would see you branded as an absolute Philistine, found his crown began to slip with his 2011 film Tree of Life as in many cases the reception was more of bafflement rather than the adulation he was used to. Nevertheless, it won a loyal following, often among those pleased to be able to "get" what he was on about, or at least proclaim the same, but just one year later To the Wonder was released and the chorus of disapproval grew that bit louder. This was now regarded as his weakest effort to date, as if he was becoming all the more self-indulgent and neglecting to connect with the audience.
Funnily enough, Malick wasn't doing much different here than he had done previously, it was just that he was concentrating on mood and tone rather than storyline, something that was never going to attract a wide fanbase, not on blockbuster level at any rate. For some it was simply nice that he had become so enthusiastic about making movies that he was churning them out at a high volume: in the eighties, the thought that he would make two films practically back to back would have been unthinkable when he had us believing he may never direct again. For the naysayers, however, To the Wonder was too vague, too airy-fairy, to be much use to them, and its dreamlike texture a serious turn off.
By offering us the barest minimum of establishment in the basics of the narrative, the director was practically forcing us to experience his film on an emotional and, dare one say it, spiritual approach, the character of Javier Bardem's fretting priest making that more concrete as he wrestles with his faith and offers counsel with the usually-present voiecovers we hear. The trouble being the improvisational technique, as with Malick feeling his way through a loose plot made up of nostalgia for his own past, he unintentionally found his cast pretty much repeating the same actions over and over again with various nuances; likely there was more contrast left on the cutting room floor.
What we got were near-endless alternating scenes: in one, a character will chase another playfully, cueing much unheard giggling, and in the other, a character will make their way through some natural terrain or other as the camera dogs their footsteps. There were variants, but not enough to prevent this seeming very repetitive, as playful chasing gave way to angry chasing later on - you half expected Neil and Marina to jump into a couple of cars and commence a cop thriller-style vehicular pursuit, all the time emoting at each other via the rear view mirror. Then there was all that walking, which had Affleck plodding through mud when he could have easily detoured around it, or Kurylenko negotiating bracken-covered countryside with a faraway look in her eyes. After a while the most wonder many would be going through was what the point was; Rachel McAdams showed up to break the monotony as an old flame of Neil's who he rekindles a connection with, and it all looked very lovely, but it was thin stuff if you were not on Malick's rarefied, though thankfully never condescending, wavelength.