I would first say that it's virtually impossible for me to imagine how anybody could fail to regard To the Wonder as Terrence Malick's worst film, though "worst" isn't necessarily a useful word in this context: prior to this, I'd have said that Malick's "worst" film was The New World, which was so bad that I only put it in my top 15 films of the 2000s, and not the top 10.

But disregarding semantics as the realm of the petty and the tedious, I'm afraid that I did, in fact, find To the Wonder to be a failure, though the kind of failure that only a very talented filmmaker bristling with ideas and the confidence to follow through on them could have possibly made.Which is to say: let us not fear that Malick has lost It, so soon after reaching what I consider to be the pinnacle of his career with The Tree of Life; let us maybe consider that making films so much faster than he ever had before in his career isn't quite the right direction for him to be going. Famously, the director doesn't really know until he gets into the editing room what story he's going to end up telling, and it's in the process of cutting material together that his films find their shape and rhythm. That's worked out fine before, even when it ruffles movie star feathers, as in the case of The Thin Red Line, and it's surely this very particular discipline that gives his films their characteristic flow. With To the Wonder, for the first time ever, I think we're looking at a Malick film that didn't find itself in the editing room after all, and ends up shapeless and erratic: the phrase I've kept returning to, every time I try to explain what went wrong, is that the film doesn't "gel", that however impressive several of its individual moments are, it has none of the flow of his other pictures. It is choppy in places, particularly in its disastrous prologue, where Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in France and fall in love, before returning to Neil's hometown in Oklahoma; the sequence that gives the film its title ("The Wonder" is another name for Mont Saint-Michel, which is a key location), and the sequence that is meant to kick start the next two hours of psychological and spiritual exploration, and it simply doesn't land at all - it is the worst sequence, I believe, in all of Malick's cinema, consisting of many bite-sized shots that do not inform each other or meaningfully create either a narrative or emotional throughline. Seemingly random insert shots have been a Malick trademark since Days of Heaven, his second feature, but there and elsewhere there's a way that the apparently formless editing has an organic sense to it. In To the Wonder, it's just insert shots: "Okay, I'm bored, let's show a boat now". There's no sense of build or direction, just abstraction.

Which would be okay, perhaps; Malick's cinema, right down to the much-maligned use of breathy, philosophical voice-over, frequently tends towards abstraction, as far as narrative filmmaking goes. And this is where I violently break from the critics who see To the Wonder as being an embarrassing self-parody in which the filmmaker indulges in all his usual tricks to the utmost degree; if anything, I think the problem is that it tries far too much to break with Malick clichés. Not only is it set in the present - which pays off somewhat, for Malick and the greatest living cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki do some fine work in making the shapes and colors and lights of exurban Oklahoma look utterly beautiful - its narrative is a very simple domestic drama: Neil and Marina live together; she and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), grow weary of life there, and move back to France; some time later she returns, but the initial love between the two has been snapped and they are unable to return to their initial idyllic relationship. And the way it is put together implies a character-driven narrative that isn't supported by the characters that Malick likes to write and direct, who are more conceptual placeholders than actual psychological entities (think, especially, of Motherhood-Grace and Fatherhood-Nature in The Tree of Life). In short, we have a character-driven plot without characters.

Between the mostly grounded, non-symbolic central relationship, and the glamorous (but, after The New World and The Tree of Life, hardly revelatory) shots of Sonics and housing subdivisions in hushed lighting, there's a strong sense I get that To the Wonder is an attempt to marry Malick's style with a more immediate life-as-it-is-lived plot instead of the more ethereal concerns of most of his movies, particularly his last one. A noble experiment, if that was the intent, but it doesn't take, at least not here. And that has to do with a lot of things, though the worst is that the film simply doesn't seem to have been thought all the way through. It's obvious what the themes are meant to be, without the themes themselves actually coming through, and even that's mostly because one can use the rest of the director's body of work as a road-map to tell that all these shots of Marina wandering through fields and the local Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), looking sorrowfully at nothing are probably about the quest for spiritual ecstasy, since every Terrence Malick film is in some regard about the quest for spiritual ecstasy. Unlike many people, I have no interest in mocking To the Wonder for its earnest treatment of this idea - it's not like movies about ecstasy get made so often that the theme is hackneyed and trite - though I pity it for how poorly it manages to do anything with the idea besides vaguely posit that we can't tell if God is listening, or if God exists, an idea that isn't, by itself, as compelling or innovative as anything The Tree of Life was juggling.

There are other problems: the voiceover is more intrusive here than in other Malick films, which I think has everything to do with the fact that it's subtitled, which gives it a kind of weird French art-house vibe that doesn't fit it; Kurylenko has been miscast, and it's pretty obvious in general that her story is not the most interesting one that To the Wonder could have told: for the first time ever, I'm convinced that Malick left the better movie on the cutting room floor, and that it had much more of Quintana (whose material is by far the most theologically and philosophically effective in the movie as it exists), and more of Neil's brief romance with Jane (Rachel McAdams), which in its brief appearance here marries actual human experience with Malickian abstraction considerably better (McAdams certainly fares a lot better under Lubezki's camera, and her physical appearance sits more comfortably alongside Affleck in the film's more archetypal register than Kurylenko), and I'm guessing that there's a movie that integrated the Quintana material with the "Neil and his women" material in a way that feels smoother and more intuitive.

Now, I am being harsh on a movie that, all things considered, I still think that everybody should see; and I still imagine that it's going to remain one of the most distinctive and unique and unquestionably personal movies that I'll see in 2013. It is a Malick film that does not come together, for me anyway; but it is still a Malick film. It's still beautiful, it is still contemplative, and it still grapples with concepts and issues that the vast bulk of mainstream movies want to stay as far the hell away from as they can manage. It does not grapple with them consistently well, though there are scenes throughout that I love, and would love even more in a film that knew what to do with them. But even as a failure, To the Wonder is more intellectually stimulating than many "better" movies, and I imagine that making it was something Malick needed to do in order to move on to the next thing. I am not sorry that it exists, even though I really hope that the next one is a whole lot more complete and coherent.