By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 15, 2013 at 11:57AM
The last movie that Roger Ebert reviewed was Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder," which seems appropriately fitting. "To the Wonder" is a movie of quiet contemplation, one where an Oscar-winning movie star like Ben Affleck is mostly found in stoic silence and conventional plot mechanics are either eschewed or completely ignored. It doesn't take on the cosmic dimension of his equally divisive "The Tree of Life," but "To the Wonder" does contemplate similarly big questions about humanity, the world and our place in it. Ebert himself seemed to wrestle with his opinion before forming a conclusion (and acknowledging its complications): "There will be many who find 'To the Wonder' elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need."
There are those of us at the Playlist who felt, like Ebert, that "To the Wonder" flirts with transcendence and others that felt like the movie is intermittently brilliant but often veers uncomfortably close to self-parody. Undoubtedly, it's unapologetically presented in Malick's style of steadicam, evocative images and poetic narration to guide the movie. Some have found it's too indulgent in Malick's comfortable wheelhouse of techniques, while others are more forgiving because of the ideas it attempts to tackle. But which is it? Brilliant or boring? Moving or muddled? Or maybe somewhere in between. Undoubtedly, you will have your own distinct reaction when you see it soon. Read on to find out what we each thought of the movie, and then weigh in with your own thoughts below.
Unlike most, I didn't fall over myself, basking in the warm glow of Malick's last film, the admirable but impenetrable 'Tree of Life.' It was one of the more anticipated movies of my lifetime, having learned about the mysterious "Q" project that followed "Days of Heaven" and then, to have it resurface as "Tree of Life," which took so long to put together that it was enough to wonder if, even after it was shot, anyone would ever be able to see it. For me, the different parts were too dissimilar to cohere into something truly impactful – the journey into deep space and primordial beginnings was lyrical, but aimless; the stuff with Sean Penn seemed particularly disconnected, especially during the movie's third act, when he washed ashore on some kind of celestial tide pool.
Which brings us to "To the Wonder," a movie every bit as ambitious as 'Tree of Life,' but on a much smaller, more humanistic scale. There aren't any ponderous implications about the birth of the universe and the religious allegories are relegated to the margins, not written all over the page. It's true that Malick indulges in some of his worst tendencies – too much voiceover, a plot that doesn't move forward as much as it drifts in place – but (for me, at least) the movie felt incredibly real and personal; oftentimes positively relatable.
In my estimation, "To the Wonder" is a more powerful, singular accomplishment than 'Tree of Life,' and just might be Malick's best movie since "Days of Heaven." Both "Days of Heaven" and "To the Wonder" are primarily concerned with human relationships (in both cases, a love triangle that strains and creaks) and not some oversized thematic dimension. (There might have been more of a spiritual element if the relationship between Javier Bardem and Ben Affleck had been at the center of the film, as it once was.) If Malick's bad habits are present, I've accepted them like anyone else who I love but who occasionally annoys the fuck out of me. I'll take the twirling and the sun peeking out between tree leaves, especially if it's during the course of a movie as beautifully melancholy and heartfelt as this.
His stylistic tics might now be as easy to duplicate as a high schooler doing a fake Wes Anderson goof on YouTube, but there's a profoundness that goes along with them that goes beyond the superficial. Malick seems to be reaching for the ultimate cinematic goal: truth. And, with "To the Wonder," I think he's grabbed it. -- Drew Taylor