It saddens me to say that watching “To the Wonder,” admirable as it is for its formal ambition and visual awe, is one of my most frustrating movie experiences of the year. Really, I’m being way too Minnesota nice there. I pretty much hated it. Everyone looks lost on camera. "Well, that’s the point!" you may counter. Sorry, not buying it. Even if Malick was so successful at portraying his protagonists’ (Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck) wandering psyches and their yearning for connection, that doesn’t mean watching it is any less insufferable.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams -- making up the other part of this love triangle -- weren’t shot stunningly. True to form, DP Emmanuel Lubezki conjures beautiful, poetic imagery, proving he’s the best in the biz yet to win a cinematography Oscar (after Roger Deakins). But, you know, the light shining through tree leaves; the fuckin’ frollicking in the fields and grocery stores; the jagged, twirling camera moves; and the jeez-will-it-just-please-stop-already spinning and staring through curtains... All of this -- as apt a distillation of what happens in the film as a rundown of its threadbare narrative -- all serves to weaken the power of those pretty pictures, until by the end I just couldn’t help it anymore and started laughing uncontrollably.
A lot of what I’ve said could be construed as hyperbole or even obvious when it comes to knocking Malick for being Malick. But I stand by this as being a truly bad film, regardless of whose name is under the director credit. My disdain goes deeper than simply making fun of this pretentious wank fest. Malick’s obsession with the idealized female truly does reach parodic levels here and actually undermines the potential for two talented actresses to chew into rare meaty roles for women. With all of the talented, well-known actors cut from the film, why the decision to keep Javier Bardem’s priest character in it? 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, making “Gummo” seem even more impressive by comparison (at least Harmony Korine took on a more empathetic approach, whereas Malick apparently just wants us to feel bad for these folks). This is one of the most immature movies about love and longing I can think of, rendering its female leads as childlike, manic pixie crazy people who are so consumed by their love, it’s apparently all they think and talk about. Affleck is such a frustrating cipher of a character that his indecision left me feeling that Malick wants us to be annoyed not with him, as we should, but with McAdams and Kurylenko, each can’t stop telling Affleck how much they love him (there is such a thing as unhealthy obsession, which is actually a better title than “To the Wonder”).
Beyond the unintentional hilarity -- how anyone can keep a straight face when McAdams, rope tied around her wrists, gazing at Affleck, declares “I trust you” is beyond me -- it’s hard to deny that ‘Wonder’ is as shallow, immature and bloated as a Michael Bay “Transformers” movie. Even the plot rundown -- guy struggles to choose between two girls -- fits the high concept mold (admittedly plot is not important to Malick nor does it have to be for any filmmaker), except this is arthouse, not blockbuster, indulgence at its worst. The thing is, I still consider Malick to be a gifted filmmaker. I’ll see anything he puts out. This time out though, perhaps because he’s sped up his work pace of late, his swing and ultimate miss is as epic as Casey at the Bat. --Erik McClanahan
"To The Wonder" is now in theaters and on VOD. We invite you to share your thoughts below if you've had a chance to catch the movie already.