Discuss: Is Terrence Malick's 'To The Wonder' Another Profound Masterpiece Or A Parody Of His Worst Tendencies?

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by The Playlist Staff
April 15, 2013 11:57 AM
36 Comments
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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

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36 Comments

  • Paul | May 4, 2013 2:37 PMReply

    All of this squirming by critics and commentators is cleanly explained here:

    http://theweek.com/article/index/243353/terrence-malicks-moving-christian-message-mdash-and-film-critics-failure-to-engage-with-it

    I'll add to it: you either like serious classical music, or you don't. That, combined with Christian theology, are Malick's obsessions. If either of those don't innately appeal to you, just move along.

  • junebug | April 29, 2013 5:42 PMReply

    One has to be permissive with Malick, or every single of his movies could be as easily dismissable.

  • DrewSF | April 23, 2013 4:40 AMReply

    I saw this film two days ago, and I'm surprised by how much it has stuck with me. I grew to really like The Tree of Life with multiple viewings. My fondness for that film was more cerebral, really enjoying returning to the film to unpack its themes (like a great novel). In contrast, my connection to To the Wonder was much more visceral. I found the passionate and tumultuous romance between Neil and Marina very compelling, and the sense of longing captured in those final shots (enhanced by the score) was incredibly moving. I can definitely see how this film did not work for people (even more so than The Tree of Life), but again, the film, especially those final shots, have really stuck with me since. I look forward to watching it again soon.

  • Daphne Moss | April 22, 2013 5:19 AMReply

    I really wanted to like this. days of Heaven really is one of my favorites. I enjoyed the Paris sequence at the start. And I have a high tolerance for feeling part of a nice beach date near a castle. But the little dialogue there was often was moronic. And what a comedown to live in Kansas, Malik seemed to say. Treeless, depressing and then the uncomfortably servile French lover acted like she had a problem with her mind. Who the fuck lies down in a swamp and licks tree buds and thrusts roosters at someone's face?
    And what about that French friend who ranted for full on 5 minutes about all the ways her pal had to break free? She sounded psycho. I know I was supposed to hear Javier Bardem's ruminations about his relationship with God as his way of coping with his depression over feeling so overwhelmed by the misery all around him. But throw us a bone. A man coping with hornets by just leaving the room or him hiding from a tweaker who's banging on the windows...kinda boring and indeed felt kind of like a Malik self- parody.
    But here is the take-away...even at his silly, dull, incomprehensible, Malik still made a much better movie than most of what's in current release. And I watched the entire movie without looking at my watch or getting up.

  • Daphne Moss | April 22, 2013 5:19 AMReply

    I really wanted to like this. days of Heaven really is one of my favorites. I enjoyed the Paris sequence at the start. And I have a high tolerance for feeling part of a nice beach date near a castle. But the little dialogue there was often was moronic. And what a comedown to live in Kansas, Malik seemed to say. Treeless, depressing and then the uncomfortably servile French lover acted like she had a problem with her mind. Who the fuck lies down in a swamp and licks tree buds and thrusts roosters at someone's face?
    And what about that French friend who ranted for full on 5 minutes about all the ways her pal had to break free? She sounded psycho. I know I was supposed to hear Javier Bardem's ruminations about his relationship with God as his way of coping with his depression over feeling so overwhelmed by the misery all around him. But throw us a bone. A man coping with hornets by just leaving the room or him hiding from a tweaker who's banging on the windows...kinda boring and indeed felt kind of like a Malik self- parody.
    But here is the take-away...even at his silly, dull, incomprehensible, Malik still made a much better movie than most of what's in current release. And I watched the entire movie without looking at my watch or getting up.

  • Kiana Love | April 20, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    I think Erik is TOTALLY missing the boat calling this movie immature. It tackles deep questions of love, isolation & humans connections to each other. I don't see it as simple, shallow & don't find her annoying. I don't see the twirling as shallow, I see it as an awe & wonder of life. I love the wonder of nature & the rawness of the struggle to open to love. I could have done without Rachel McAdams twirling. One twirling awestruck woman was enough. It was not my favorite Malik movie & it did move me to consider the questions that Malik invited us to explore for ourselves. I watched it with my husband & as always we felt more connected afterwards & found ourselves examining the themes and how they relate to our lives. Malik's movies leave me hungry for more depth & connection in my own life & willing to take action to live life fully.

  • Bob | April 18, 2013 2:20 PMReply

    Masterpiece

  • brian fantana | April 17, 2013 1:11 PMReply

    Not

  • Dan | April 17, 2013 9:39 AMReply

    I hated The Tree of Life so this just sounds horrible, but I will try to watch it one day I just think Malick is an overrated filmmaker, his visuals yes are great but you need so much more than that and for me his themes and messages are executed so clumsily, pretentiously and boringly, hes the least subtle director ever. I felt like the Tree of Life was just screaming GOD!!!!!! at me. I really do love philosophical films that have something to say but I prefer the style of say Paul Thomas Anderson, now there's a filmmaker.

  • Grey | April 29, 2013 5:58 PM

    I personally cannot say I enjoy Paul Thomas Anderson's works. The Master felt looser than The Tree of Life ever did. To me Paul Thomas Anderson is technically gifted, but fails to provide any sort of experience in the way that Malick does (if you can open yourself to feeling the film rather than watching it).

  • Victor Hugo | April 16, 2013 10:07 PMReply

    Masterpiece by Malick

  • Victor Hugo | April 16, 2013 10:02 PMReply

    Masterpiece by Malick

  • lulu | April 16, 2013 4:10 PMReply

    I loved Tree of Life, despite its imperfections. This I hated. It was not profound in any way. The voice-overs were laughable, filled with platitudes and cheap aphorisms about love and life and faith. Malicks visuals are beautiful as ever, but empty, like a perfume ad. I think Malick has great, powerful ideas but his expression is banal and cliched. Its too easy to call Malick's critics lazy, needing instant gratification, not sophisticated enough to see how 'deep' his films are. I can appreciate philosophical, meditative films if they are executed with skill and subtlety. Ebert wrote that Malick is one of the few filmmakers who aspire to create nothing less than a masterpiece. Unfortunately, he doesn't always succeed.

  • Ben Rider | April 16, 2013 12:37 PMReply

    I think that it is hard to weigh in on this film, as it essentially asks questions of the viewer which each of us will project our own ideas onto - to me it feels very personal; as if it were an incomplete thought which I've continued for the past few days on my own.

    I suppose there is some comfort in knowing that this isn't his last picture, if it were I think it would linger uncomfortably with all of us like 'Eyes Wide Shut' (Kubrick, '99).
    Regardless, it is in the shadow of the grand Tree of Life, and perhaps that's part of the conflict, we can't help but compare it. If it were by a first time film-maker, we would probably not give it the same amount of attention. Bottom line, it is a Malick film through and through, and it wouldn't be one if it didn't come attached with a bit of philosophy.
    His films aren't small packed lunches, they're rare dinners cooked up in some exotic location that we see on Tv.

  • Jon | April 15, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    I enjoy the film. beautiful as always with a Malick film.
    But I agree with this: "I mean, really, what’s he doing here, besides wandering around in decrepit parts of Texas and talking with damaged and unfortunate, poor folks. These scenes often come off as queasily exploitative..."
    That is the difference between Terrence Malick and Carlos Reygadas or Bruno Dumont. Malick show this real poor people like a postcard for miserabilism. Reygadas and Dumont at leats listen to them and take time to spend time with them and respecting there humanity. Not just: look they are cripple.
    But i am a supporter of Malick and I like I like the fact that he is prolific now.

  • Superzoom | April 15, 2013 3:19 PMReply

    I really enjoy The Playlist articles like this that offer multiple writer opinions. What makes them interesting is that all the opinions expressed are valid, whether positive or negative. I like the brutal honesty expressed in this article. An art film is going to polarize an audience. That's what they do.

  • tristan eldritch | April 15, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    Haven't seen it yet. So far, Spring Breakers was the best Terence Malick film I've seen this year.

  • Rodrigo | April 18, 2013 6:44 PM

    Spring Breakers is nothing like Malick. Next you'll say Ain't Them Bodies Saints is Malick-ian, which it really isn't. Malick-esque has become a totally lazy signifier. And I say this to someone who I recognize as a good and valuable commenter, but c'mon...

  • Erik McClanahan | April 15, 2013 2:55 PM

    Tristan you magnificent bastard! Spring break foh-evaaaaaaaaah.....

  • Daryl Hannah | April 15, 2013 1:57 PMReply

    The best thing I can say about this movie, is that after my initial VOD viewing, I used it again later to help me get to sleep.

  • cirkusfolk | April 15, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    I questioned this sites writers on another article as to why they were all for this film considering it had a terrible rottentomatoes score and I was basically chastised for it. Now it seems they realize most people find this film sucks and they are in the minority. Btw apparently his next two films don't even have scripts. I bet the music one is going to be worse than Nine Songs. At least that film had penetration shots.

  • Ed | April 15, 2013 2:08 PM

    Circus, you constantly reveal yourself to be a silly man. You've hated this film before you've even seen it simply because Rotten Tomatoes told you you should. it's sad.

  • Cory Everett | April 15, 2013 2:06 PM

    Except there is no site consensus. As you can see here, some of us really dug it, some of us didn't. But regardless, I think we all want to root for Malick even when/if he stumbles. Why wouldn't we?

  • jbean | April 15, 2013 1:44 PMReply

    You have to know what you're getting into going in. I see Malick's trajectory like this. First two films (Badlands / Days of Heaven) have the most solid narrative structure for sure, and thus are generally regarded as his best. The next two (Thin Red Line / New World) start to get more impressionistic and most people start to get bored / complain about them. These last two (Tree of Life/To the Wonder) are about as experimental as you can get, traditional narrative structure is gone, they seem like moments flitting about in someone's memories...and for the most part they are, as they are both heavily based on Malick's life experience, and that's what keeps me the most interested. Are the last two films as enjoyable to watch as all the others? Maybe not on first viewing...but I have to say after having left the theatre after having seen them both, I felt WEIRD, and could not stop thinking about what I had seen and what it all meant. Both films don't spell out things clearly, but they suggest and show pieces of human existence/experience that we can all relate to, that is very powerful and universal. If you want to go see a movie, see something else...if you want to have a philosophical meditation on what it is to be human...you're in the right place.

    I'm still thinking about the movie 4 days later.

  • Daryl Hannah | April 15, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    Absolutely insufferable. Why is Malick wasting all these great actors' time? Just cast some unknowns and go off and do your Planet Earth via Stan Brakhage horseshit. I've haven't laughed as hard as I did when the deep sea turtle shot came around in a long, long time.

  • Lydia Peters | April 15, 2013 1:32 PMReply

    I'm with Erik McClanahan 100%. It felt like Malick only direction to Ben Affleck was, no matter what happens, never put your hands in your pocket.

  • Dan | April 15, 2013 1:27 PMReply

    What are the rules for cinema? Are there any? Do you subscribe to them as landmarks for judging a film? Is it simply as vague as whether or not something moves you? What if a filmmaker takes a different approach: trading in plot and characterization for atmosphere, rhythm, and a style mimicking, say, memory? Can a director's representation of their memory be judged and categorized? Are these directors only granted an audience with preconceived notions about what a film should be? In other words, does a film need to create a specific personal connection with you in order to be deemed successful? Are there not other considerations? Possible you're missing something?

    How does this audience reward risk-taking, if at all? Does it know what goes into making a film and what expectations come with that? Do they recognize the admirable and vulnerable intentions of translating personal experience into something that communicates with others? Does cinema have room to grow in the minds of this audience? Do criticism and judgmental reactions override celebrating and appreciating cinema as an art form and cherishing those that take their work sincerely?

  • hank | April 15, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    RENN caught this movie last night.

  • cirkusfolk | April 15, 2013 1:44 PM

    Hahaha

  • Franlyn | April 15, 2013 1:05 PMReply

    I still can't wait to see this.

  • Renn | April 15, 2013 1:04 PMReply

    I caught this movie last night, I truly do not know what to make of it. Malick, to me is one of the most overrated filmmakers. The man has not made a truly decent movie in decades.

    But, To the Wonder is a movie in which I think each individual, will take something different out of their respective viewing. For, me I found some parts decent and other parts just simply tedious. Liked the performances of the actors though, Olga Kurylenko especially was really good.

  • Genga | April 15, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    I really enjoyed To The Wonder. There are a lot of valid points in everyone's opinions about this latest Malick endeavor. And yes, there are moments that pretty much border on self-parody (how many times can Olga's character twirl around and do cartwheels in open fields of grass?). Though, what really made me love this latest film is that Malick is questioning love, faith and relationships.
    Love, faith and relationships between a man and a woman. How it starts off joyful, fresh and so alive at first, but, then, it deteriorates. How the characters start to drift apart and the one most invested in the relationship begins to question the opposite. There is so much giving but none of that is returned.
    I see the same similarities with Bardem's character who is a devoted follower to the faith. Perhaps, in the beginning, like Olga's character, he started off with some newfound love and joy in his belief for God. But, later on, as he wanders the urban decay in those poverty-stricken neighborhoods, he begins to question his relationship. His faith.
    God acts similar to Affleck's character in that he is unresponsive. Cold. His presence is there, yet, he does nothing. And this leaves Bardem's priest to constantly question and probe for some response. Some sign of the same faith and love he has invested into his faith.
    I don't think not having a plot of any sort really bothered me at all. I loved that this evoked so much more careful thought and analysis. It is all relatable because we all have at one point and another, experienced the same things as Malick brings up in To The Wonder.
    All the flowing steadicam shots, all the intimate close-ups, of sun shining over the horizon, all these things (for me at least) are moments that express points in the relationships between man and woman or man and nature, etc.. They are beautiful and so naturally composed on frame yet, they still connect and make sense to me in the overall picture. They have purpose.
    This film explores mainly Malick's themes, ideas, experiences, and questions. They aren't there for any concrete facts or answers. Yes, it's there to invoke some emotional content in some form or another. It's also a very open for each individual's own interpretation of these moments because we have all experienced some kind of love and loss through love and relationships.
    And we all know, Malick's films aren't for everyone. There are those that enjoy a thoughtful, meditative film that lingers in our minds and never leaves because we are in constant questioning of the themes and ideas being expressed up on the screen. And then there are the structured films where we have an opening, a middle and an end that wraps up satisfyingly so that we can discuss it for a bit and go home and live our life like normal.
    So, for myself, it's good to have filmmakers like Malick around to challenge and stimulate those of us that are hungry for some food for thought.

  • Dottorecannelle | April 16, 2013 10:38 PM

    100% agree with you

  • Dottorecannelle | April 16, 2013 10:06 PM

    100% agree with you

  • Dottorecannelle | April 16, 2013 10:06 PM

    100% agree with you

  • oogle monster | April 15, 2013 12:14 PMReply

    To The Wonder doesn't have the kind of Brad Pitt-can't quite forget performance that The Tree of Life had... not to mention Hunter McCracken who makes you feel like you're standing beside him, feeling similar thoughts of loss, confusion, frustration, anger, etc. Wonder has a LOT of twirling and not much of a plot. TOL, as muddled as it may appear at times, is still rooted in some story. Wonder just had me dizzy from all of the damn twirling. Heck, Ben Affleck's shoulders were pretty much a second character.

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