As I was watching Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder it occurred to me once again that he may be the D. H. Lawrence of the cinema—he has the same knack for grand, sweeping lyricism, and for infusing the most intimate of moments with a certain cosmic power. He’s unapologetic in his attraction to the kinds of big, weighty themes (God, love, nature, etc.) that not many other artists bother to tackle anymore. In this regard, Malick’s films can feel both audaciously bold and laughably old-fashioned; visually, they’re nearly always stunning, but you often get the sense that Malick is dealing with ideas that went out of fashion more than a century ago. His previous film, The Tree of Life, succeeded largely because it took both its images and its ideas to such extremes that it really felt impossible not to regard it with a certain awe. So one can’t help but feel disappointed with To the Wonder, which looks lovely, of course, but lacks ambition. Beyond its rather unremarkable love story, to which it clumsily appends a subplot involving a frustrated priest, there’s not much there to warrant Malick’s epic treatment.
Set largely in rural Oklahoma, the film effectively captures the vast, majestic beauty of the American Midwest. It’s less successful in its attempt to poeticize more banal spaces, such as supermarkets, gas stations and fast-food joints. But the bigger problem is that there isn’t enough depth to the subject matter to give its sequences any real power or urgency. Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko’s love affair is conveyed mainly via shots of them gazing meaningfully at one another and frolicking together. They frolic through meadows, on beaches, in forests, in their living room. Their falling out of love is indicated by their ceasing to frolic. Affleck briefly defects to another woman (Rachel McAdams); more frolicking, this time with buffalo. In Malick’s The New World, John Smith’s frolicking with Pocahontas was freighted with significance; it stood in for the irrevocable coming together of two worlds. In To the Wonder there’s nothing behind the romantic clichés according to which its characters behave. Devoid of any deeper meaning, Malick’s lush montage sequences—impeccably photographed though they may be, and often set to utterly sublime music, such as Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus—begin to feel somewhat silly, much as the set pieces in Lawrence’s novels often collapse into absurdity.
Malick’s talent as a director is beyond question; he has an instinctive genius for putting together images and sounds, often to rapturous effect. But To the Wonder makes it clear that his films need substance, too, and perhaps the weightier the better. 112 minutes of frolicking is not enough, even if it is some of the most beautiful footage of frolicking ever committed to film.