The voiceovers from Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, which has a lot of them, are intoned on the soundtrack while the characters stare into sunrises or sunsets — whenever the light is right, what cinematographers call, "the magic hour." This film and Malick's last, The Tree of Life, suggest that he's evolved into a blend of director and Christian minister: These are psalms writ on film. Again and again Malick's characters ask why we're here, how we might locate the presence of the Almighty in the everyday, and how we can accommodate ourselves to our expulsion from the Garden.
There are critics who've greeted Malick's last few cinematic church services on their knees, and I went into this one with my mind open. But at some point a wind from On High blew it shut. It's not that the characters' struggles don't interest me. You share those struggles, no matter what your faith or lack thereof, if you're human. The problem is these characters don't seem human. They're not people, they're symbols of people, so the whole thing comes off as generalized, even woozy.
At the heart of To the Wonder is a love affair between Marina, a Ukrainian woman living in Paris played by Olga Kurylenko and an American called Neil played by Ben Affleck. Marina thinks there's evidence of God in their union, with its potential for salvation for her and her lonely young daughter, Tatiana. Love, she narrates in French, makes us one. One, two, two, one. They travel the road to Mont Saint-Michel with its famous abbey. "We climbed the steps," she says, "to the wonder."
They move to a new community on the plains of Oklahoma, the New World, and once more Malick serves up the rapturous music he used in his 2005 film The New World — Wagner. This is the Garden. Neil, Marina, and Tatiana dance. They frolic with a hose. They dance some more. Marina gives the camera — representing Neil — a come-hither look and twirls, arms in the air, toward the sunset. They gambol. Actually, I don't know what gamboling is, but I'm pretty sure they do it. Marina strolls among long-horned cattle and men with ten-gallon hats and extols the land as calm, rich, fertile. Then, of course, comes the Fall. The ground turns out to have been poisoned by a nearby plant. More important, Neil won't pop the question. He can't find it in his heart to commit.
In the editing room, Malick reportedly lopped out much of the dialogue. Then he sifted through images, layering them, creating leitmotifs. That's how he's been working for more than a decade: Adrien Brody famously showed up for the opening of Malick's The Thin Red Line thinking he had the lead only to discover he wasn't in the movie. Somewhere in the course of the editing Malick lost his To the Wonder characters. He keeps Affleck's face off-screen or in shadow, or puts the camera behind the actor's broad back so he's Everyman — or more like Everylug.
We don't know why Neil can't make a covenant with either Marina or the childhood friend with whom he replaces her, a rancher played by Rachel McAdams. But it seems to be rooted in his inability to make a covenant with Christ. That's the implication of the words of a local priest played by Javier Bardem whose heart has become hard, who wanders through the movie dropping lamentations. "Everywhere you're present," he tells the Almighty, "and still I can't see you."
I have a confession, Father: I laughed every time Bardem appeared. I'm not going to lecture Malick on either faith or art. But I do think cinema, like literature, draws its power from the intersection between the general or abstract and the specific: characters who compellingly articulate their woes, or conflicts rooted in a here-and-now from which we can then extrapolate. Amid the clichés of To The Wonder there is beauty and lyricism. But the movie plays like coming attractions for a movie. It's vaporous, and I don't mean like the spirit that transcends this material world. I mean like there's no there there.