It can't be easy being Terrence Malick. After debuting with the powerful one-two punch of Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s, he has worked only when he feels like it, making a total of six feature films as a director over the course of his 40-year career. Malick has gradually acquired the status of a mystic guru of cinema, complete with the singular power to make the world's top actors drop whatever they're doing and travel to far-flung locations, script unseen, for the rare chance to appear in one of his films. But his recent work hasn't lived up to the reputation.
Like Malick's previous film, Tree of Life — which abruptly interrupts an impressionistic coming-of-age story (and a stellar performance by Brad Pitt) for a lengthy and wordless sequence depicting the creation of the cosmos — To the Wonder is an all-or-nothing, love-it-or-hate it proposition. There's not much plot: A man we never get to know (Ben Affleck) bounces back and forth between two beautiful women (Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams) in the American heartland. Reportedly made without benefit of a traditional script, To the Wonder delivers a visually rich but somber meditation on the nature of love and spiritual fulfillment. You have to admire Malick's daring and his willingness to go wherever his muse happens to take him. But he has started to appear stuck on the cusp of the elusive late-career masterpiece everyone seems certain he has inside him. — KEN KORMAN