It's curious, the apathy that has greeted this film. It's been just two years since The Tree of Life opened to great discussion, critical acclaim, multiple Oscar nominations, and a hotly divided audience. Perhaps Malick is paying the price for this surprisingly prolific third act in his career: when you start releasing movies every two years, they're no longer "events". Which may be what the infamously shy director is actually going for.
Occam's Razor, of course, suggests that To the Wonder is being dismissed because it's simply a poor film. I disagree. While many are calling this "minor Malick", I'd describe it more in old pop music terms: if Tree of Life was Malick's big single, then To the Wonder is the B-side; it scours some of the same emotional and spiritual territory, but its scope is narrower and more intimate. To many, this may translate as "less significant", but because of its more modest ambitions, I personally liked it more than I did Tree of Life.
The story is a simple account of an American man (Ben Affleck) falling in love with a Parisian woman (Olga Kurylenko) while traveling through France, then bringing her back with him to Oklahoma. Because it's Malick's first film to be set in the present day, it's interesting to see him apply his ever-keen "magic hour" sensibilities to the most banal locations: a suburban housing development, a Sonic drive-in, an Econo Lodge motel. He depicts the modern American landscape as both beautiful and desolate, bland yet spacious. It reflects Kurylenko's character's ambivalence to her new surroundings, where the wide-open vistas and spotless supermarkets first provide a refreshing contrast to the confines of Paris, then become a trap, as she finds the land as stoic and uncommunicative as Affleck's own character.
There's almost zero "real" dialogue in To the Wonder; what little there is is mundane and mumbly. But even Malick's trademark voiceovers take a back seat to the visuals. And the real life oddballs that populate the edges of the scenes – more depressing than quirky – took me back to Malick's debut film Badlands.
No doubt inspired by Malick's own doomed marriage to a French woman in the '80s and '90s, during that fallow period where he wasn't making films, To the Wonder – more than anything in Malick's previous output – feels like it's coming straight from his heart. Although I can't call it a great film, it deserves more attention than it's been given.
My friend Bilge Ebiri, a longtime defender of Malick's work, hit it on the head with his assessment: this film, he believes, was designed like a ballet. The actors are almost always filmed and edited in movement, as though they are dancing, and the music is pervasive. If you approach To the Wonder the same way you might approach a dance recital, as I did (thanks for the tip, Bilge!), I think you'll appreciate it a lot more than if you expect a straightforward narrative film.