Frankly, a bad Terrence Malick film is better than 90 percent of movies released in cinemas: but if you thought The Tree of Life was indulgent and overly kaleidoscopic, you should avoid this like the plague. Because this film is even looser and more internalised, taking an impressionistic approach to plot and characters that gives us very few specifics. It also leaves the cast to play mere hints of people who are having crises of faith and love.
After a lushly romantic trip to Paris and Mont Saint-Michel, Neil (Affleck) brings his French girlfriend Marina (Kurylenko) and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Chiline) home to Oklahoma to live. The geography and culture are a shock to both of them, but Marina tells Neil, "If you love me, I'm OK here." So they begin to bond as a family, and Marina turns to local Catholic priest Quintana (Bardem) for support. But he's having a crisis of faith, and she's wondering if she's made a terrible mistake. So when her visa expires, she takes Tatiana and returns to France. In confusion, Neil then turns to his old flame Jane (McAdams). But as their rekindled romance begins to get serious, she realises that he's still in love with Marina.
Malick tells this story with snippets of ideas and feelings. Emmanuel Lubezki's sumptuous cinematography finds raw beauty everywhere, including in Malick's trademark sun-dappled leaves, waving wheat fields and rippling water. But there's also raw beauty in the actors' faces, and we understand their thoughts through breathy voiceovers that offer philosophical musings and biblical texts. As a result, only Marina emerges as a properly defined character with passion and yearnings; everyone else is sketchy and vague. Even Affleck and Bardem, who have strong on-screen presence, never quite register here.
But if you go in expecting a rolling, evolving painting rather than a narrative feature film, you might be surprised by how much thought and emotion the movie manages to provoke. By dealing with such intensely personal issues as love and faith, Malick gets under our skin and challenges us to think. There aren't many filmmakers who would dare to even touch on these things, let alone tackle them in such a visceral, moody way. And while the film's final third kind of spirals out of control, it's still impossible to get out of your head.