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

The Playlist 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.
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Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, To The Wonder

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

To The Wonder trailer (skip)

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

This article is related to: To the Wonder , Terrence Malick, Review, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Reviews


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