1. You can make all the jokes you want about Terrence Malick's movies, particularly these last two later-era ones, whose interest in normal movie things like "plots" and "stories" and "coherent narratives" is minimal at best, but they knock my socks off. I know that both The Tree of Life and now To The Wonder (which opens on Friday and is available On Demand, but you shouldn't watch it there; Malick is not a filmmaker whose films are logical complements to household chores and browsing cat photoshops) feature endless shots of people running through fields of wheat, dancing around in circles, and whispering new-agey psychobabble ("The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by") in voiceover. I still love them, and if you give them a chance, I bet you'll love them too.
2. Still, it has to be said that To The Wonder is even more elliptical and story-averse than The Tree of Life was, and that's saying something. (The Tree of Life famously inspired a theater to warn moviegoers that they were about to watch something that "does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to filmmaking.") That film at least gave you a central story that you could get your arms around, the reminiscences of a man wrestling with the effects of his youth in rough 1950s Texas. What can we pull out of To The Wonder? Ben Affleck plays some sort of health inspector who falls in love with a French woman played by Olga Kurylenko, and then he falls out of love, and then back in, and then back out. Affleck is the central character, but I believe he has roughly 10 lines of dialogue, most of which are delivered in voiceover. There is also lots of wheat.
3. I understand if this the whole "traditional, linear narrative approach to filmmaking" thing is scaring you off, but I'm obliged to let you know what you're in for. Malick's movies are all about mood and rhythm and feel; they are structured, as Bilge Ebiri pointed out in a To The Wonder rave, not all that different than a classical music performance, a symphony. You find yourself swept along, if not necessarily away, by To The Wonder, as Malick just glides over any traditional narrative clues. I don't know what goes right and wrong with Affleck's and Kurylenko's relationship, but it feels vast and epic and tragic, even if I'm not sure why. Malick's sensual, almost ethereal filmmaking specialty is making the personal feel cosmic, and I'm not sure he's even been better at that than here. He makes the (muddled, sorta confusing) story of a relationship feel like the span of the universe.
4. Another thing I loved about To The Wonder: It takes place today, in a normal American (well, Oklahoman) city, with all its mundanity and ugly corporatism. When Kurylenko has an affair (with the actor who plays Skinny Pete, of all people), she has a depressing, trashy tryst in an Econo Lodge, next to the highway, bookended by sad gas stations. Yet Malick somehow finds the beauty even in this. One of his techniques in this film is to sneak in normal everyday exchanges–banal drive-through chit-chat–in the midst of his loopy philosophizing voiceovers. The merge is stunning and lovely, a strange valentine to the poetry and prose we all encounter all the time and never think about. I appreciate Malick setting his film and his musings in a recognizable, drab setting, and making that gorgeous as well. For a few hours after seeing To The Wonder, I found myself finding the beauty in subway grime, and rat feces, and the guy muttering to himself while wearing bags on his feet up and down 57th Street. Malick gets in your head that way. He makes everything feel important.
5. Not everything is, though. Affleck's and Kurylenko's buildups and breakdowns, as sketchily constructed as they are, aren't quite enough to build a movie around. (Affleck mostly just looks confused throughout.) You'll be grateful for Javier Bardem's priest character, who wanders in and out of the film, delivering sermons, serving communion, looking lost. I'm not sure how he fits into the main story, but I perked up every time he came on screen anyway; I've never thought so much before how lonely it must be to be in the clergy, communicating only with a God you can never be entirely sure is listening at that particularly moment. Bardem's character is sort of a spectral guide through the Malick world, in which you see the pain and loss and confusion, but you hang on and you keep moving forward, because there is too much beauty around for this all to be some sort of coincidence. To The Wonder is a tough slog only if you let it be one. If you give yourself up to it, you'll be carried along–not knowing where you're going, and never really minding much either.