"We climbed the steps..." whispers Olga Kurylenko, as a French woman named Marina in love with a nameless American man played by Ben Affleck (the credits call him "Neil"). After that ellipsis and a further pause, she finishes her hushed thought, "...to the Wonder." The camera follows the couple as they climb those steps at Mont Saint-Michel, which is a pretty wondrous place, you have to admit. But did she have to tell us they were doing it when we could, you know, already see it taking place? Yes, asserts director Terrence Malick for the next two hours of love-meditation, she does. They all do.
The story -- and it's not hard to follow if you're paying attention instead of spacing out -- involves Marina and Neil moving to Oklahoma, ostentatiously displaying loving glances and frolicking in fields before stumbling over love and parting for a moment. Into this moment arrives a local priest (Javier Bardem) whose own whispered words are full of existential despair as he slowly loses grasp of his faith. Rachel McAdams also shows up as "Jane," a woman from Affleck's past. She's the less ethereal and way-more-blonde flip side of the angelic lady coin and her time with Neil is brief. Marina is returning. But for how long?
Malick's been moving in this direction for a while now, but here his gauzy, poetic brand of spiritual display -- formerly shapelessly cosmic and huge, increasingly straight-up Christian and highly specific -- is long on suggestion and montage, light on traditional narrative locations like character and plot. Every moment trails off into a question mark. Every element of darkness is balanced by an element of light, every sentence offered up as a prayer to, in Kurylenko's words, "this invisible something."
Malick's lovers (both the agape and eros varieties) speak in voiceover more than to one another, in murmurs or barely audible fragments or not at all. They join together and separate and love and hate and marry and divorce and pray and curse as the director creates a Calgon bath of soft liturgy and softer cinematography of Extreme Prettiness, no matter if the shot is following Kurylenko twirling with products in a fluorescent drugstore or Kurylenko twirling in sun-streaked meadows or McAdams twirling near some bison. Malick's men are wordless but his women are intuitive spiritualists; they love to twirl and reach out to the sky because, like Jessica Chastain said in the director's earlier movie, The Tree of Life, "That's where God lives."
What's it all mean? The director isn't telling. So if you're without patience for movies that depart from storytelling as usual then you'll hate it because it's confusing. If you're without patience for any sort of spiritual seeking then you'll hate it for its earnest God-yearning (but seriously, if you've seen the kinds of inept Christian movies getting made lately, you know that Evangelicals would be lucky to get Malick on their media team). And If you're a longtime Malick devotee you'll appreciate his continued, determined resistance to the mainstream, even if you're beginning to play a mental game of Bingo with his sunsets, flowering fields, billowing curtains and hands grasping for the ineffable. If you're in advertising you've already caught up to him and turned his aesthetic into "the touch, the feel of cotton." And If you're the guys behind Scary Movie 5 looking to parody a Malick film, then sorry, he already did the job for you.