Sitting through Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder is like watching a stranger sorting through a packet of old photographs. To the photographer, the snapshots recall a story. To us they’re disconnected episodes in an unknown narrative. The people we see in them are laughing, crying, whatever; but we have no idea who they really are, and we never find out. As a cinematic technique, this willful ambiguity, dispensing with the building blocks of plot and character, is trying, and we feel a tide of boredom rising. But it’s Terrence Malick, so we hang on.
The movie isn’t much more than a footnote to The Tree of Life, Malick’s grand and masterful contemplation of human purpose amid the imponderable sweep of God’s creation. That movie really did instill a sense of wonder; this one is an afterthought. The familiar hallmarks of the director’s style are everywhere in evidence – his endless doting on the natural world (flowers reaching up through snowy ground, sunlight beaming through trees) and his heavy reliance on voiceover as a narrative device. But the interior monologues here (“What is this love that loves us?”) are low on illumination, and if the insistently arresting imagery were removed, there wouldn’t be a lot left to hold our interest. There’s very little as it is.
The main characters, if we can call them that, are an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) and a Frenchwoman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko, giving the movie’s only engaging performance). We find them at the outset in Paris, in love, wandering the picturesque streets and parks, then taking a side trip to Normandy to wander at even greater length through the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel (which offers plenty to keep cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki busy). Here, Marina, fulfilling the function of Lady Life Force, laughs and skips and pirouettes with little letup, while Neil, for the most part, broods inscrutably. (Affleck has virtually no dialogue in this movie; he’s used mainly as a compositional element, like a lamp or a statue.)
How Neil and Marina got together, or what Neil’s even doing in France, are not the sort of fundamental data with which Malick is inclined to be forthcoming. While we’re still wondering, he relocates Neil and Marina and her cute tweeny daughter (Tatiana Chiline) back to the States – to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which we assume is Neil’s hometown. (Malick, who was once married to a Frenchwoman, is also a Bartlesville man.) I mean no disrespect to the Sooner State in pointing out that Bartlesville is to Paris as corn dogs are to caviar, and that the movie’s visual interest begins to wane once the story arrives there. As depicted here, Bartlesville is a parched prairie burg of high wooden fences and struggling lawns. Marina sees promise in this arid place – she wants to be Neil’s wife. (“I want to be a wife,” her inner monologist says.) For some reason, though, having dragged this woman 5000 miles from her homeland, Neil’s not ready to commit. She grows glum. He grows remote. They drift apart for a bit. Then another woman appears – an old friend of Neil’s named Jane (Rachel McAdams), taking up plot acreage that might have been more usefully devoted to basic story information. She’s not around long, though. Nor is a chattery Italian woman who befriends Marina for about two minutes. (There’s also, briefly, a turtle, which I won’t go into.)
I should mention that Javier Bardem is in this movie, too, although solely to give voice to the director’s well-known spiritual concerns. Bardem plays a priest, Father Quintana, who’s losing his faith, and wants Godly reassurance. (Alone in his head, he thinks things like, “My soul thirsts for you. Will you be like a stream that dries up?”) As Quintana shlumps around town muttering to himself, we begin to wish he would join Jane and just get out of the way.
Malick attempts to enliven things with hand-held camerawork, but the picture is essentially action-free. Neil and Marina wander around aimlessly, sometimes in the company of photogenic buffalo or horses, or they stand around in their sterile Bartlesville house staring at the carpet. On the rare occasions when they actually gear up to speak to one another, Malick carefully obscures their words or calls in a wash of Dvořák or Berlioz, and we relapse into indifference. Well before the movie dribbles to its conclusion, we have joined Father Quintana in asking, “Where are you leading us.” God has little to offer him in reply, and the director has nothing for us.
Did you know there’s a dark downside to the ubiquitous presence in our lives of laptops, iPads, smartphones and such – that they’re turning us into disconnected tech zombies ripe for exploitation and abuse? Of course you did. So first-time feature director Henry Alex Rubin’s Disconnect offers little in the way of hot cultural news. But the movie is nevertheless gripping, filled with rich performances by a top ensemble cast and powered by a script (by another first-timer, Andrew Stern) that punches home its points with memorable detail.
The picture is structured much like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which used interwoven stories to take the measure of the international drug trade. Here we have Rich Boyd (Jason Bateman), a corporate lawyer whose laptop habit is blinding him to the needs of his wife (Hope Davis) and two kids – especially his 15-year-old son Ben (Jonah Bobo), a sensitive loner who’s drifting into emotional isolation. When Ben is approached online by a sweet-sounding stranger using the name “Jessica,” his world lights up – until this mystery girl draws him into a cruel game, and darkness once again descends.
At the same time, Cindy Hull (Paula Patton), a woman who has recently lost a child, is secretly visiting a Website support group for people mourning the death of their loved ones. There, unbeknown to her husband, Derek (Alexander Skarsgård), she establishes a relationship with a purportedly heartbroken man named Stephen (Michael Nyqvist). Then Derek’s credit card is hijacked, and his bank account is siphoned dry. He calls in computer-security expert Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo), who pries Cindy’s email correspondence with Stephen out of the family computer. Derek decides that Stephen must be the identity thief by whom he’s been victimized, and since police offer little hope of nailing the guy, Derek – an ex-Marine – wonders if he should do so himself.
Meanwhile, Mike is unaware of another problem, one closer to home. His computer-addict son Jason (Colin Ford) and an equally snotty high-school friend have devised a plan to humiliate an unpopular classmate through online trickery -- a project that goes terribly wrong.
Finally, a TV news reporter named Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough) has been investigating live sex-chat sites that utilize runaway kids to lure their creepy clientele. Nina establishes a cam-to-cam connection with an underage stud named Kyle (Max Thieriot), and convinces him to take part in her investigation, which she hopes to turn into a sensational broadcast report. She promises to shield Kyle’s identity, but once again things go very wrong, and after Rich Boyd, her station’s lawyer, is called in to assess the situation, Nina and Kyle both find themselves in extremely deep trouble.
Although the outlines of these people’s problems are familiar, the multilayered story is filled with surprises, and the actors are uniformly compelling. Bateman – who’s never been better than he is here -- brings an entirely non-comedic weight to the role of a man self-convinced that his computer obsession is simply an offshoot of his complex job. Riseborough channels a redeeming warmth into her depiction of a woman half-blinded by professional ambition, and Bobo (of Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Thieriot (featured in the new TV series Bates Motel) are superb as two very modern kinds of lost boys.
There’s no pat resolution to most of these stories – no group-hug renunciation of the online shadow life. The movie ends on at least one note of tattered hope, but it’s not clear if all the characters have learned the sort of schematic lessons you might expect. And outside, of course, technological temptations fester and grow.