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Critics Accused of Missing the "Profoundly Religious" Message of 'To the Wonder'

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by Matt Singer
May 1, 2013 3:08 PM
8 Comments
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"To the Wonder."

A few weeks into its run, it's probably safe to say that Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" -- a lyrical meditation on love, God, and Sonic Drive-Ins starring Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck -- is a first for its wildly acclaimed director: a critical flop. It's his first "rotten" movie at Rotten Tomatoes, where its 42% ranks almost 20 points lower than Malick's next least regarded work, 2005's "The New World." Even many stalwart Malick fans have temporarily abandoned their beloved auteur. But one writer believes the fault here lies with Malick's critics, instead of with Malick himself.

TheWeek's Damon Linker says "To the Wonder" is, contrary to consensus, "an ecstatic cinematic tribute to God" and a great film, one whose "profoundly religious -- and specifically Christian" messages have been lost on most critics. "Whether or not the silence is a product of the theological illiteracy and scriptural ignorance that typically prevails among overwhelmingly secular journalists," he writes, "something essential about these remarkable films has been missed." Here's more of his analysis:

"On a deeper level, the film is Malick's meditation on the Christian vision of love -- and the obstacles that we perversely place in the way of satisfying our irrepressible longing for it. Anyone who's fallen in love is familiar with the feeling: The world appears transfigured. In the first words of the film, Marina describes it as being 'newborn,' called 'out of the shadows.' In a series of quick scenes filmed in Paris, the lovers touch and embrace each other bathed in radiant sunlight. In voiceover, Neil calls Marina 'my sweet love... my hope.' Marina says their love unites them, makes one person out of two."

Linker's interpretation of "To the Wonder" is certainly valid. So did the majority of critics miss the boat? Malick's "The Tree of Life" certainly wasn't lacking for "profoundly religious" messages or themes, and a lot overwhelmingly secular journalists loved that movie. Linker argues that critics, who he says did a "passable job" reviewing "Tree of Life," still mostly overlooked "its numerous theological and scriptural allusions" and even made fun of its ending, in which Malick created a magic hour vision of a heavenly afterlife. Mostly, he argues, they were just moved by Malick's imagery.

That's certainly possible. It's also possible "The Tree of Life" was just a better movie than "To the Wonder;" more focused, more beautiful, better acted, and more profound, religiously or otherwise. I'd argue you don't need to be Christian to appreciate the Christian message in a great movie -- "It's a Wonderful Life" has moved generations of heathens to tears with its story of charity and simple human kindness. For most people -- Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, or none of the above -- "To the Wonder" does not have that kind of impact. A message can be profound, but if it's delivered in a boring sermon, it's still going to get lost. On this film, at least, I remain a skeptic.

Read more of "Terrence Malick's Moving Christian Message -- And Film Critics' Failure to Engage With It."

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More: Terrence Malick, From the Wire

8 Comments

  • Paul | May 4, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    It's as if you didn't read a single word of Mr. Linker's direct attack on your squirming. Anyway, thanks for spotlighting the article which explains all the self-obsessed shrugging.

  • serpico | May 4, 2013 5:44 AMReply

    I must say that I was frustrated listening to the Playlist guys talk about this movie. Their insight with the movie totally missed the mark, and yes, our increasing secular society is too cynical to be on Malick's wave length. It's sad.

  • Jeff Huston | May 3, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    Most reviews I've read - love or hate - at least acknowledge the religious message and themes (how can you not with Bardem's Priest?). I guess it just wasn't to the degree of Linker's liking.

    That said, I was able to review it for Crosswalk.com and may have delved deeper into those themes than most others did (probably because I share Malick's Christian faith, to the extent I can glean it from his movies). To wit: "The title initially seems to imply a journey toward some enlightened state of being, but by film’s end it reads more like the top of a letter addressed to The Being."

  • pinto | May 2, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    Yes, critics missed the boat on To The Wonder. Probably too busy showering laurels on Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Oh, wait, Iron Man 3.

  • matt | May 1, 2013 6:48 PMReply

    I've read a bunch of reviews for this movie and most critics get the message of the movie. Most people are able to get it, especially after watching Tree of Life. As you say, most critics are saying the film is that mystical message without any of the depth or success that is in many of his previous films. Superficially beautiful, yet most critics say the film is messing any emotional core beyond the near parody of Malickian imagery and philosophical rambling. This critic seems to just really dislike that other people didn't like a movie he liked. His response is to attack other the ability for other critics to "understand" the films singular and only message according to him.

  • Pinto | May 2, 2013 12:06 PM

    I found it a bit odd that critics would dismiss a film that was so very in keeping with the general trajectory of Malick's modern output; therefore, speculating that it was the Christian subtext that they may have missed, isn't entirely out of order. Let's not forget, that many people did not like, or "get" if you will, Tree of Life, either. It seems a lot of fairweather fans may have migrated to the other side.

  • Scott Beggs | May 1, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    A critic critiquing other critics? Yawn. Are some of us really that bored?

  • David | May 1, 2013 3:26 PM

    You realize what website you're reading right? It's called CRITICWIRE. It's basically devoted to critics and critiques.

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