Terrence Malick has always been an acquired taste. Fortunately for the filmmaker of 2011’s nearly 21 / 2-hour “The Tree of Life,” a film that moved at the pace of a tai chi master, his last few releases have given audiences plenty of time to acquire that taste. Unfortunately for those of us in the audience, there’s also plenty of time to un-acquire it.
Not since the 1970s — when Malick made his feature debut “Badlands” and its excellent follow-up, “Days of Heaven” — has the director been able to keep a film to 90 minutes. Even his relatively fleet-footed new opus “To the Wonder” clocks in at close to two hours.
It feels much longer. By comparison, Malick’s World War II epic “The Thin Red Line” tipped the scales at a whopping 170 minutes. But at least that 1998 film had people shooting at each other. There’s no such excitement here.
“Wonder” follows the romantic relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who, when we first meet them, are still in the early stage of infatuation when everything, even a mud flat, looks beautiful. The film opens with the lovers visiting the French monastery at Mont-Saint-Michel, where they gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes and splash in the wet, gray silt that surrounds the island at low tide. Like the rest of the film, the cinematography here is enough to make you swoon.
Would that the story were equally compelling.
Eventually the couple settles into a house somewhere in the American West, along with Marina’s daughter from an earlier marriage (Tatiana Chiline). Neil, an investigative reporter looking into some unspecified toxic chemical, is either emotionally remote or suffering from indigestion. Most of the dialogue between him and Marina consists of disjointed fragments, alternating with whispered voice-over narration that sounds more like lugubrious poetry than conversation.
It’s pretty, but it isn’t the way people talk.
At this point, Malick introduces a third major character. Because this is a movie at least ostensibly about love, the Roman Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is heard sermonizing about the love of a man for his wife: “He does not find her lovely,” Quintana says. “He makes her lovely.” (That’s actually kind of a beautiful thought.) Judging by the worried look on his face, however, Quintana is experiencing some kind of crisis of faith. Malick lards the film with lots of scenes featuring Quintana ministering to the elderly, the sick, the disabled and those in prison, even as he appears to be in a cage of his own making.
But Neil and Marina have their own problems to deal with. The remainder of “Wonder” charts the couple’s ups and downs, which include a quickie courthouse marriage, followed by separation, mutual infidelities, reconciliation, a visit to a fertility doctor, as well as a fair amount of fighting about — well, it’s never quite clear what.
Too much of “Wonder” consists of shots of sunlight streaming through trees, stained glass or Marina’s fingers, as she twirls around in her back yard like an 8-year-old girl. It’s the kind of footage that looks artful, but it also feels like outtakes from “The Tree of Life.” At times, “To the Wonder” borders on self-parody.
There’s another kind of light, though, that Malick’s movie is even more obsessed with than the kind you can capture with a camera. That’s the light of the spirit. As the sexton at Quintana’s church (Tony O’Gans) suggests, maybe that’s the only light that matters.
There’s nothing wrong with making a movie that’s so unapologetically spiritual. In fact, it’s rather nice to watch an artist who’s not afraid to ruminate on the mysteries and the meaning of love, longing and loneliness. It’s just a shame that, after a while, Malick’s meditation on the human condition starts to feel like a reminder of how uncomfortable theater seats can be.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity and sexuality. In English, French, Italian and Russian with English subtitles. 113 minutes.