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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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And I thought the esoteric 'Tree Of Life’ was going to be Terrence Malick’s most uneven and inscrutable films (and likely my least favorite of the bunch). Malick movies of late keep drilling down, distilling into a feeling more than into a narrative or a plot. Let’s be clear: this is absolutely ok. Though, perhaps not so ok when that feeling is so ephemeral that apparently it doesn’t latch onto any profound, moving or poignant matter. All of this is deeply subjective, of course. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say and many, many people are seeing a lot of value in Malick’s latest searching, essence-questing meditation on love -- it’s fleeting nature, spirituality and faith, including Roger Ebert, many of The Playlist and our official review from Venice. While wondrous and rapturous at times, I have to admit that sometimes “To The Wonder” feels like one long trailer for a Terrence Malick movie than an actual movie and I almost cannot resist the urge to playfully rib and mock it. I’m a big champion of Terrence Malick films, as many on The Playlist are, but I’d be lying if I said “To The Wonder” deeply moved me. Like Andrea Arnold's “Wuthering Heights,” which is Malick-esque at times (but which I found to be an oppressive portrait of so much excruciating mud, wind and rain over and over and over again), “To The Wonder” may make or break for you, depending on your tolerance for shots of women twirling in fields -- over and over and over again. “To The Wonder” also takes itself so seriously that it’s absolutely humorless. Granted, this could likely be said something about every Malick film, but it begins to veer very close to self-parody -- as if someone were simply trying to make a Funny or Die version of a Terrence Malick film (which personally I would love to see). 

What rang deeper with me (and I’m not a particularly religious person at all) were the picture’s themes of faith and spirituality; Javier Bardem’s character and his existential dilemma of having put his trust in God, but never really daring to speak aloud that he felt an absence of faith. The two themes, love and faith, kind of intermingle, but never quite coalesce, like two gusts of winds that meet for a moment and then are dispersed into nothing. “To The Wonder” is almost obsessed with gliding cameras and movement, mood and tone, but it's so evanescent, it feels more like a whisper than a deep, everlasting story. Perhaps that’s exactly the point and that heart-aching longing for something missing in your life is a profound pain and experience that everyone in life has likely once felt. It’s just that I’m feeling that expressly in my critical mind and not in my heart or soul and in a Terrence Malick movie, that’s almost a kiss of death. Admirably digging for something deeper beyond narrative and pretty to look at, the picture sadly doesn't penetrate or move me much. I need to chalk this up in the “miss” category for me and I hate comparing apples and oranges, but "The Tree Of Life" contains much more cinematic nutrition and food for thought. Terrence Malick films generally inspire wonder and awe, and I think this one falls a little short. - Rodrigo Perez

We seem to live in a very cynical time and that’s because cynicism is easy. Perhaps that is what makes Terrence Malick more out of step with contemporary cinema than we already attribute to the reclusive (or rather, press shy) filmmaker. “To The Wonder,” in particular, operates on a level of such open vulnerability, that it can understandably be jarring and ripe for smirking. Full disclosure: I found that Sonic ad and trailer parody amusing, but it’s also an easy joke and not particularly sophisticated. While more than a few have crossed their arms and stood at distance from “To The Wonder,” scoffing at the constant steadicam or perhaps one too many twirls in an open field by Olga Kurylenko (and admittedly, Malick is arguably at his most indulgent in that sense, with this movie), they’re engaging within the movie at its most superficial level.

An unofficial autobiography of sorts, it doesn’t match his life story beat for beat, but Malick was undeniably drawing on his own experiences and relationships in this film, putting those into a blender with his spiritual queries, and laying them out fairly open. "Earnest" is often used a cheapshot, but “To The Wonder” is, in the best way possible, but it also asks the audience to shed a defensive coating and any distance (no matter how remote) we may have from a movie and to experience it with the breadth of our beliefs and history. A common complaint is that Malick’s films lack a real plot, but again, it’s less about what’s going to happen in the narrative as what is happening right now with the individual.

The Tree Of Life” and “To The Wonder” are companion pieces, and they find a filmmaker deep in a crisis of faith. They wonder aloud how we can grasp the full dimensions of love, life and death, when the purity of the natural world, our complexity of human coexistence and our innermost souls all seem to been turned rotten to various degrees. Is it because God has left us or we have left God? There are no answers, but these films search and search -- perhaps Malick isn’t finding the movie in the edit, maybe he’s just trying to find answer. Yes, Malick’s films are undeniably gorgeous, but they are also dark and haunted and pained, forever yearning, continually awed and also imbued with loss. (Also, it should be mentioned that Malick's camera is also critical -- the plain and ugly suburbs don't go unnoticed and particularly the characters Javier Bardem's priest consoles are far from the Hollywood pretty of the movie's leads).

“To The Wonder” is flawed, excessive and imperfectly formed. But it’s also probing, curious, carefree and cruel, contemplating questions and ideas with an intense and wondrous emotional bravery few filmmakers possess, let alone exercise. -- Kevin Jagernauth

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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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