Vision Quest: To the Wonder 

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To the Wonder
Directed by Terrence Malick

Divisive seems a strong word for the lyrical creations of Terrence Malick, but such are the reactions to the works of this filmmaker who, with this largely dialogue-free film, pushes further into the experimental. Many have mocked his reliance on starry-eyed voiceover, his touch-and-go direction of actors, and especially this film’s unabashed, searching consideration of Love; others surrender themselves to his often demanding visual language—and to the journey of the title. I confess to logging considerable time in both camps and emerging a surprised admirer, less put off by this expressionist movie’s willful limitations and more struck by its dance-like sense of movement and its visceral, almost subliminal expression of love’s ardor and angst.

French-Ukrainian Marina (Olga Kurylenko) experiences plenty of each at the hands of her Oklahoma man Neil (Ben Affleck), who takes in her and her young daughter but balks at marriage; when she goes back home because of an expired visa, he has a fling with a girl he knew in high school (Rachel McAdams). Periodically, the film weaves in the spiritual struggles of another European transplant, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), to connect with god or at least his indigent parishioners. Malick doesn’t tell all this through scenes per se but with emblematic images, in alternately glancing and lingering montages, that treat the actors as figures in landscapes, and by elegantly phasing in and out of hushed, interior points of view—a kind of floating subjectivity.

That’s a big reason why To the Wonder can trigger impatience and ridicule: what is here the primary mode of expression is used in other movies as lyrical asides and flights of fancy, the decoration to the main drama. But the action in To the Wonder is second to the rise and fall of emotion: Marina’s carefree joy, projected onto Neil, is succeeded by a gathering, inescapable anxiety that “there’s something missing” (as her daughter puts it in one of the film’s succinct, well-integrated voiceovers). And despite the criticism of Affleck’s truncated performance (including by yours truly), his frequent absence from the frame effectively instills the feeling of a certain brand of noncommittal male affection. Likewise, one apparently non sequitur image of Neil and Jane surrounded by a silent herd of horses, full of unpredictable intuitive energy, unnervingly expresses their affair at the very moment of uncertainty, poised on the brink of becoming something more or being left hanging.

So, while Kurylenko may gaily twirl her way through one too many scenes of abandon (and abandonment), and while McAdams may not pass muster as a calloused rancher, Malick and his legion of editors quietly sustain shot after shot of the loveliest kinetic cinema—whether cutting from Affleck spinning Kurylenko to a dizzying carnival ride or making astonishingly seamless matches on forward camera movement across wildly different scenes. By instructing DP Emmanuel Lubecki to shoot every other scene at flaring, streaming sunset, Malick works in a vein of sensation: houses, for example, are more psychological constructs than actual locations, treated as blocking opportunities out of a stage play or clammy dream. If the film’s soundtrack was a single song instead of assemblages of Gorecki and ambient elements, you might actually be put in mind of a music video.

It’s common to hear that many dismissed films would do better with a second viewing—and it's also the last thing a detractor wants to hear. Perhaps one more viewing would only leave you finally dubious of To the Wonder’s strange real-world insertions, like pasted-in news clippings, of the meth-head and Down-syndrome regular folk visited by Father Quintana. But for all its imperfection and shortcuts, whether forced by production circumstance or not, To the Wonder need not be a work of genius to stir the heart.

Opens April 12

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