Let's start with math, because if there's one thing everybody flipping loves, it is math! The amount of time that passed between the release of Terrence Malick's Badlands and the release of Days of Heaven: five years. Between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line: 20 years. Then seven years until The New World, and then another six before 2011's The Tree of Life. Since 1973, Malick's made a grand total of five films; if he'd stuck to his schedule, To the Wonder wouldn't be out until November of 2042. But nope: Here it is, a mere two years after he befuddled everyone with The Tree of Life. But To the Wonder doesn't feel rushed, nor does it feel slight; if the reclusive Malick was able to make something like this in such a short amount of time, it makes you wonder what the heck he's been up to for the past three decades. Probably just hanging out, watching Justified, and drinking mojitos. (Terrence Malick is a fiend for mojitos.)
To the Wonder is a lot less confounding than The Tree of Life (there aren't any dinosaurs in it, for better or worse), in large part because rather than tackling the entirety of existence, it focuses on something ostensibly smaller: relationships. In particular, one between Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck). The first time we see Marina and Neil, they're deep in love—or deeply infatuated, which, in the short term, might as well be the same thing. Laughing and running and nuzzling, they swoon their way through Mont Saint-Michel with passionate abandon, with neither the ancient monastery nor the heavy, slate-gray sky causing them any concern.
Marina also has a young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), and it's only a matter of time until Marina and Tatiana leave Paris to live with Neil in his home: Oklahoma. Overcast skies and worn-down monuments are jarringly replaced with unflinching sun and sterile suburbs, and Marina and Neil's overpowering romance starts to become less and less overpowering. Hanging around the small-town periphery are a few more residents: Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest trying to make his way through his hollow faith, and a rancher and childhood friend of Neil's, Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Because it's Malick, everything—whether in France or America, on rain-battered beaches or in soulless subdivisions—looks stunning, though it never loses its Ansel Adams-like layer of precision and distance. It sounds great, too: Only a few lines of dialogue are spoken (Affleck gets about two lines), though much is said, via subtitled voiceover, by Marina and Quintana.
But while the impressionistic To the Wonder is remarkable to see and hear, it's also both simultaneously intimate and remote—an odd sensation that keeps the film's characters just past arm's length. Malick gets close to these people and their lives, and he ventures deeper still into Marina's thoughts and emotions, but To the Wonder never shakes the sensation of hearing a good friend vent about their troubled relationship: There are problems, sometimes brutally personal ones, but they're still someone else's problems. Assembled from fragmentary, pieced-together glimpses, To the Wonder feels like it might be Malick's most personal film, but it falls short of grabbing hold, never quite able to make us feel rather than observe. Early in the film, still intoxicated by Neil, Marina proclaims, "Love makes us one"—a sentiment that's easy enough to go along with. But later, when "You make me laugh!" is given as the reason Neil is so desirable, the relationship becomes as head-scratchingly inexplicable as anything in The Tree of Life: Most of what we've seen Neil do is glower, pout, glare, or sullenly stare into the distance. To the Wonder gets close, but somehow not close enough. We never know as much about these people as Malick does, which means all their problems are someone else's.