FILM Terrence Malick has had an extraordinary career for a Hollywood hermit making art-house films in an industry that finds him commercially irrelevant and artistically erratic at best. Even his consensus-agreed best movies are the kind that alienate many potential Oscar voters — too abstract, too ambiguous, too poetical, too "European" — so the potential prestige involved is of a marginal critical- and cineaste-appealing stripe no sane US producer would hitch his or her wagon to at this point. Yet Malick's movies cost money — a lot of money — and it doesn't all come from international companies willing to take a loss if they can take home some modest returns and major cred toward their next artistic investments.
In a way, it should be a source of joy that Malick keeps getting to make large, personal, indulgent, un-commercial movies when almost no one else does. Other mainstream US filmmakers have had their intellectually or artistically ambitious follies (see: 2006's Southland Tales and The Fountain, or 1980's Heaven's Gate), but they're generally allowed just one. No one else has had the long ride Malick has. He is indeed a poet, a visionary — but has he ever had more than passages of brilliance? Are the actors and producers who treat him with awe as some exotic shaman actually enabling art, or mostly high-flown pretensions toward the same?
To the Wonder does provide some answers to those thorny questions. But they're not the answers you'll probably want to hear if you thought 2011's The Tree of Life was a masterpiece. If, on the other hand, you found it a largely exasperating movie with great sequences, you may be happy to be warned that Wonder is an entirely excruciating movie with pretty photography. For all but the diehards, it could be a deal-breaker — the experience that makes you think you might very possibly never want to see another by this filmmaker again.
The one movie in which Malick's variably over-the-top compassion, philosophy, idolatry of nature, and generally spellbound-by-beauty instincts were best supported was 1998's The Thin Red Line, an abrupt return to activity after two decades' complete absence. No matter that the reeling narrative bore limited resemblance to James Jones' novel, or that Adrien Brody's leading role got almost entirely cut out — he wouldn't be first or last to cry foul at a Malick edit drastically altered from the original screenplay. To the Wonder apparently employed the talents of Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, and Rachel Weisz — all of whom ended up on the cutting room floor. To make room for ... what? A movie that could have been wholly shot by the second unit, for all its interest in actual character, narrative, insight, and acting.
Instead, we get handsome shots of Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (or sometimes Affleck and Rachel McAdams) wandering around picturesque settings either beaming beatifically at each other or looking "troubled" because "something is missing," as one character puts it in a rare moment of actual dialogue. (Generally we get the usual Malick wall-to-wall whispered voiceover musings like "What is this love that loves us?" delivered by all lead actors in different languages for maximum annoyance.)