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Division Division: 'To The Wonder'

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by Forrest Cardamenis
April 10, 2013 1:50 PM
2 Comments
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"To the Wonder."

When there's no critical consensus on a movie, the film gets sent to Criticwire's Division Division where we measure the arguments on both sides.

When Terrence Malick premiered "The Tree of Life," it was extremely divisive -- for a little while. But once "The Tree of Life" made its way into theatrical release, the voices of praise rose to the top, and about a year later, the film was placed just outside of the top 100 of Sight & Sound's decennial poll of the greatest films of all time.


"To The Wonder" was similarly booed at its festival premiere, and while the positive voices have risen once again, one look at the Criticwire page and the Grade Snapshot for "To The Wonder" compared to "The Tree of Life" shows that it has been far from unanimous. It's highly unlikely for "To The Wonder" to find the same level of acclaim in the near future as "The Tree of Life" did, so instead, let's take a closer look at exactly why critics are divided on the film.

PRO: This goes without saying for a Malick film, but it looks ASTONISHING.

"From the hyper-real, almost extrasensory, pawing to beautifully patient representations of nature, there is nary a doubt that this is very much a 'Terrence Malick Picture.'" -- Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

CON: ...but the visual style actually works against the film.

"...because of the film's more intimate and decidedly personal tale these ethereal flourishes disengage the audience from this beautifully rendered ballet of misery and melancholy." -- Patrick Gamble, CineVue

PRO: The film is difficult, but also rewarding.

"It's slipperier and more enigmatic than anything Malick has ever done -- but the heart of the film is bold and sincere, for those who are willing to discover it." -- Jon Frosch, France24.com

CON: ...but there is nothing new here.

"Say what you will about the meandering pretentiousness of 'The Tree of Life,' at least it was unique. This movie, on the other hand, feels like a B-roll from that previous work, and is so riddled with recognisable Malick cliches that it fails to be remarkable at all." -- Tom Clift, Moviedex

PRO: The new, contemporary setting gives the film life.

"Indeed, being Malick's first-ever film set entirely in the present day gives it a pulse and vitality that we've found lacking in the last few pictures." -- Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist

CON: ...but the characters have no life.

"Her spiritual hunger need not be embedded in the same stern religious upbringing that informs the relationship between Mrs. O'Brien and God in 'The Tree of Life,' though it should be embedded in something... Marina is not unlike the film itself: a false prophet." -- Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

PRO: The lack of character specifics brings out the themes.

"[Malick] has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need." -- Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

CON: ...but those themes are too elusive.

"Perhaps there is a hidden rhythmic and thematic structure behind the facade of 'To the Wonder' ...If so, however, it doesn't assert itself meaningfully during the act of watching a film that seems drained of life and ideas rather than sustained by them." -- Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

PRO: Quietly, this is new territory for Malick.

"[Malick is] trying to find dance-like movement among ordinary people. Clearly, he feels that this reveals something about us -- that we have the potential to move with this kind of grace, no matter who we are." -- Bilge Ebiri, They Live By Night

Clearly, there is little to agree on with "To The Wonder." The characters are ciphers, the visuals are gorgeous, but are those things good or bad? Is this film a mess or a cogent look inside the human soul? Is it recycled auteurism or is it something new? As always with Malick, whatever else it is, it's also an experience, one that continues his trend of dividing critics sharply down the middle. Maybe at some point down the line there will be some critical consensus, but as it stands, "To The Wonder" remains a divisive experience for critics. We suspect it will be for audiences as well when it opens in theaters (and on VOD) this Friday.

2 Comments

  • Frederick | April 10, 2013 10:18 PMReply

    Thinking about this being new territory for Malick and the film's contemporary setting, I read this good piece at Alternate Takes about Malick and modernity (alternatetakes.co.uk/?2013,3,469)

  • Marc c | April 10, 2013 2:18 PMReply

    The problem with criticizing To The Wonder lies in the overarching criteria that film critics still use. Other forms of art have broken through this barrier. For example, would an art critic judge a work such as Pollock's No. 5 based on criteria set by, say, the Mona Lisa? Obviously not. I feel that it's only a matter of time before film catches up and opens itself to differing forms. In my mind I see two forms of films: those that elicit emotion through concern for the character's concern, and those that evoke through existential placement of the observer upon pure emotion. I believe Malick's film falls on the latter.

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