This time, though, Malick -- whose visual skills are never in question -- seems to be looking for deep meanings within a thin, schematically presented story that may have had little chance of taking him where he probably wanted to go.
The story, which whispers its way through the movie, involves a romance between an American engineer (Ben Affleck) and a woman living in France (Olga Kurylenko). Affleck's Neil makes an apparent move toward commitment when he brings Kurylenko's Marina to Oklahoma, along with her 10-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline).
"If you love me, there's nothing else I need,'' Marina says, perhaps to herself. Malick's characters are locked inside lives in which disappointment and yearning echo like cries in a lonely canyon. Who's listening? Maybe no one.
Marina better be right about not needing anything more than love because what we see of Oklahoma doesn't offer much to sustain interest, and it should go without saying that the ache of poetic romance is better felt in France than in the bleak Oklahoma subdivision where the story settles.
Malick presents Marina as a nymph-like creature who spins and dances around Neil's sparsely furnished house. She says she's happy, but it doesn't take long for her isolated daughter to begin longing for home. Who could blame her? I, too, was yearning for Paris the moment Malick set his cameras onto the desolate Oklahoma plains.
Malick eventually introduces another major character into this quietly desperate mix. Javier Bardem portrays the troubled Father Quintana, a priest who wanders around visiting the poor and talking to God, who (sad to say) isn't talking back. Father Quintana hasn't exactly lost his faith, but he's mired in some sort of spiritual fatigue. He's doing what's expected of him, but he's not feeling the priestly vibe.
At one point, a dispirited Marina returns to Paris with her daughter. While she's away, Neil strikes up a relationship with an old friend (Rachel McAdams), a practical westerner who seems well-suited to an Oklahoma-based lifestyle. Later, Marina returns to the U.S. in hopes of obtaining a green card. Her relationship with Neil resumes.
During one of her Oklahoma visits, Marina meets Anna (Romina Mondello), an Italian woman who tells her to get out of Oklahoma and seek a better life. Good advice.
To the Wonder is not plot-driven. It's not character-driven, either. It's driven by some nearly ineffable yearning that always seems to find its way into Malick's work -- for love, for spiritual renewal, for finding meaning in a world that can be beautiful photographed and still feel deeply alien.
Kurylenko and McAdams both play characters who, in this muted endeavor, surpass Affleck's Neil by a mile -- at least when it comes to interest. The deadpan and empty nature of Affleck's character make it difficult not to wonder what either woman sees in him.
At first I wondered whether Affleck had the resources to fill out this kind of vaguely defined character -- and then I began to wonder whether any actor could have brought Neil fully to life. As the cliche goes, there's no there there.
To describe To the Wonder as uneventful seems as superfluous as saying Hip-Hop music has a beat. We spend most of our time watching Malick exercise his cinematic chops, often to a heavy-duty musical sampler that includes work by Wagner, Berlioz, Hayden, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, and Gorecki.
Look, I have admired much of Malick's small but powerful body of work. And I gave To the Wonder the benefit of as much doubt as possible -- right up until the moment when my desire for anything resembling drama no longer could be suppressed. I wanted Malick to stop poeticizing and start dramatizing.
Granted, Malick always seems to be looking for something deep, and it's possible that the sadness in Malick's work stems from the somber realization that the world never fulfills our deepest longings. Few filmmakers are able to make boredom feel quite so exquisite; vacancy, quite so suggestive.
But To the Wonder may disappoint even Malick's more ardent fans. It does more to make us wonder what Malick's after than to help us experience the somber mystery of a world that seldom -- if ever -- wants to requite our love.