Review: ‘To the Wonder’ is Terrence Malick’s typically enchanted Tree of Love

VENICE — Stop the presses: There’s been booing at a screening of the new Terrence Malick film. Whether they came from the same small-but-loud faction of supposed journalists who vocally expressed their displeasure at “The Tree of Life” in Cannes last year, or a fresh batch of doubters, such jeers are unusual for films that feature no purported moral transgressions, nor any sheer ineptitude of craft. (Films aren’t booed at festivals simply for being bad, you know: a year ago, Madonna’s “W.E.” heard not a one.)

Rather, Malick is one of the few senior A-list filmmakers who can get razzed in this fashion for being too sincere, too lyrical, too himself. And he is all of those things, to both bewitching and bemusing effect, in “To the Wonder,” a follow-up to “The Tree of Life” in more senses than mere proximity. With not even 16 months separating their premieres, they are by far the nearest-born works in a filmography otherwise thick with white space, underlining the impression of two sister films: both iridescently pictorial, ambiguously self-focused and inclined to lure critics into terms they should normally feel self-conscious about using. “Tone poem.” “Meditation.” “Elegy.” “Prayer.” Ghastly words when abused, the lot of them. Malick’s cinema somehow wears them well.

So why, given this tonal and textual consistency, did I feel admiringly detached from “The Tree of Life,” finding its explosion of formal beauty a discontinuous front for its unnourished human expressions, but far more stimulated and moved by his latest? “To the Wonder” is structurally a more modest, more linear film than “Tree” — no dinosaurs here, folks, though fans of sea turtles should prick up their ears — but it’s no less vulnerable to charges of excessive preciosity, particularly from those whose secularity applies to churches beyond the House of Malick.

Though not evangelical, “Tree” was unapologetically steeped in the director’s Christianity, its hushed negotiation of nature and grace culminating in a rapt celebration of the afterlife. The more earthbound “Wonder” isn’t as fixated on such unknowables, but it’s no less faith-based, and not just in the secondary presence of Javier Bardem as a Catholic priest  struggling to bring comfort to an economically famished Oklahoman community.

Its lean primary narrative, too, amounts to an investigation of sin, forgiveness and devotion in the domestic space, as Midwest engineer Neil (Ben Affleck) and his French lover Marina (Olga Kurylenko) struggle to build a moral foundation for their relationship, and subsequent marriage, on the unwelcoming, wind-blown plains of his home turf. (The “Wonder” of the title is the French island of Mont St. Michel, where the couple are shown frolicking in halcyon days.) At different stages of the protracted breakup, both fall prey to other people’s arms: Marina, fleetingly, with a street acquaintance at an Econo Lodge; Neil, with more lasting and troubling impact, to former high-school flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). 

Seemingly inspired by the dissolution of the director’s own second marriage in the 1980s, the story forms a less far-reaching basis for spiritual investigation than its predecessor’s classical, era-hopping war between father and son, but there’s dramatic satisfaction in watching these otherwise opaque characters emerge through their tussles with more contained moral decisions and consequences: it’s the rare film that feels more affecting for the stakes being slightly smaller. Though Malick’s requisite rolling landscapes and infinite bruise-colored skies are still very much present and correct (Emmanuel Lubezki devotees should prepare for, well, the wonder), it’s the director’s most intimate film since 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” as well as his most gaspingly romantic. If the title “Tree of Life” loftily bracketed a branching journey through mortality and beyond, this is his Tree of Love. 

“Everything’s so beautiful here!” cries Marina’s pre-teen daughter from a previous liaison, as the makeshift family wheels its way through a cavernous, hard-lit supermarket. The line prompts one of the few laughs ever likely to be heard during a Terrence Malick film, but it’s indicative of the earnest enchantment coursing through “Wonder”‘s veins that he and Lubezki themselves seek to beautify everything in this onscreen environment: the first fully contemporary setting of his career, and one even more grayishly forbidding than that explored in his 1974 debut “Badlands.”

As befits the title, everything is a gaze-demanding spectacle in this simple world, be it minutiae like the shadow-box theater created by a gaudy chandelier in an underlit corridor and the technicolor tangle of real-life tattoos on Affleck’s biceps, or more extravagantly surreal flourishes like the stormy herd of bison closing in on Affleck and Kurylenko as they embrace in a wheaten field. Speaking of which, we hardly need reminding at this point that no one shoots swaying expanses of grass like Malick — and Lubezki’s further virtuosic-yet-specific wizardry here marks a happy extension of their own professional romance. (Chalk up one non-negotiable Oscar nomination for a film that looks unlikely to be garlanded as generously as “The Tree of Life.”)

Like Malick’s customary accompanying swirl of highly recognizable classical scoring — selected composers this time range from Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich to Arvo Part, with young Kiwi-born, Texas-based composer Hanan Townshend doing the bridging work — this super-aestheticized approach is bound to aggravate as many as it enthralls, but in a film dedicated to ideal but elusive forms of love, it feels thematically grounded. Ditto the casting: with their vocal contributions limited to the same strain of hushed, ecstatic voiceover (“I open my eyes… I melt into the eternal light,” and so on) delivered predominantly by Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life,” the four stars aren’t performers so much as motifs.

One could wonder why a director as famously indifferent to actors (and commerce) as Malick — Rachel Weisz’s role, incidentally, has been given the old Adrien Brody heave-ho here — continues to hire such big-name actors. (You might think he of all directors would be in favor of non-pro casts.) The combined attractiveness of this star quartet runs the risk of making the film’s least integrated or resonant sequences — those in which Bardem wearily calls on all manner of buck-toothed, poverty-stricken local parishioners — the teeniest bit condescending to boot. Even this faint absurdity, however, seems parcelled up in Malick’s restless, tender, unfashionable quest for beauty in its highest physical and spiritual forms. Never, to crib a line from “A Clockwork Orange,” has a Terrence Malick film felt more like gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh.