Pretty but inert, To the Wonder is a vaporous mystery wrapped in a gauzy enigma — a cinematic riddle that'll appeal principally to those eager for another piece, however tiny, of the puzzle that is Terrence Malick.
To the Wonder continues in the lyrical-to-a-fault mode of the writer-director's The Tree of Life; in fact, this film includes some footage originally shot for that one. But it excludes Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, Jessica Chastain and Michael Sheen, who all reportedly played roles that vanished from the final cut.
The principal characters that remain — most of whose names are revealed only in the credits — are Marina (Olga Kurylenko), Neil (Ben Affleck), Jane (Rachel McAdams) and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). The first two introduce the movie's sketchy story as they travel from Paris to Mont St. Michel, giddy with love, life and Gothic architecture.
Marina is a Parisian of Ukrainian heritage; Neil is an American of no apparent background. With Marina's 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), the couple moves to suburban Oklahoma — The New World of another Malick title. There the skies are lovely, but the buildings are not. While Tatiana marvels at the sparkling local supermarket, it's hardly Sacre Coeur.
Marina and the near-silent Neil argue intermittently, and then — in a rare intrusion of real-world detail — Marina's visa runs out. She and Tatiana return to France, and Neil rekindles an affair with Jane, the sort of rancher who tends to the horses while wearing pearls. (At such moments, the imagery seems less Stan Brakhage than Calvin Klein.) Eventually, Marina returns.
Meanwhile, Quintana wanders the streets, ministering to the poor. He muses, in Spanish voiceover, about the fragility of his faith and God's distance from him.
The priest isn't the only character who murmurs interior monologues. Marina also ponders to herself, usually in French, and the reticent Neil occasionally mutters something. There's little English, either in dialogue or narration. In one scene whose improbability verges on farce, Marina walks down a small-town Oklahoma street with a friend who's chattering in Italian.
Marina swans about, embodying a notion of feminine grace, much as Chastain did in The Tree of Life; Affleck has substantially less of a character to play than Brad Pitt had in that film. Neil is some sort of environmental investigator, collecting soil and hair samples in the oil-producing region. (If this is Affleck's anti-fracking movie, it's a lot subtler than Matt Damon's Promised Land.)
The real reason Neil studies dirt, it seems, is so that Malick can cut between Oklahoma mud and the rubbery tidal flats around Mont St. Michel. The movie's logic is primarily visual, and the director deliberately disrupts narrative by employing jump cuts, flashbacks and flash-forwards. That may sound heady, but it's what Harmony Korine did in the mindless Spring Breakers.
The glimmers of story are somewhat autobiographical. Malick grew up in Oklahoma, lived in Paris for a time and left a French spouse for a hometown woman he'd known before. But these parallels summon little of the emotion of The Tree of Life, whose less cosmic parts were rooted in the filmmaker's childhood.
Hanan Townshend's swirling score — supplemented by the work of such mystics as Bach, Gorecki and Part — is as languidly stylish as Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography. Assembled by no less than five editors, To the Wonder plays like an eccentric audiovisual remix of an original no one but Malick knows. The result is a cinematic tone poem that offers much to look at, and little to see.