Venice Review: Terrence Malick's 'To The Wonder' Is A Raw & Heartfelt Film Of Loss And Longing

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by Oliver Lyttelton
September 2, 2012 7:18 AM
36 Comments
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For a man not known for being prolific, an eighteen-month gap between Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (the filmmaker’s first film in five years) and his latest, “To the Wonder” (only his sixth in forty years) isn’t just unprecedented, it’s positively mind-boggling, especially given the director is currently shooting a pair of films, “Knight of Cups” and another that's untitled starring Ryan Gosling, back to back.

But hopes of something a little more down to earth for the new film (and this writer has to confess he wasn't entirely enamored by "Tree of Life") were seemingly quashed this weekend when Ben Affleck, the star of the film, said that it “makes ‘Tree of Life’ look like Transformers." There was also an additoinal rumor that, just like Sean Penn or Adrien Brody, he’d essentially been cut out of the picture.

But we have to say, having just seen the film in Venice, we suspect that Affleck was exaggerating a little. “To the Wonder” is unlikely to win over many who’ve sworn off Malick in the past, but it’s certainly one that leans towards traditional narrative a little more than “The Tree of Life.” And to our eyes at least (there was an awful lot of booing as the credits rolled, although booing Malick has become a badge of pride for a certain section of the press corps) it felt like a more coherent, deeply felt and satisfying film than its predecessor, and one of the highlights of the festival so far.

The plot, such as it is, is more or less the one widely reported, and seemingly based, if some are to be believed, on Malick’s own experiences of marriage and divorce. Neil (Affleck), an environmental inspector, and single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris, and while he’s a little resistant to commitment, asks her and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to move to Oklahoma with him. They live happily together for a while, but things start to crumble a little when her visa expires and she’s forced to return home for a time. Neil then reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend now divorced and managing a ranch on her own. Somewhere in the mix is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Marina’s priest and confidante, who’s suffering from something of a crisis of faith.

As you might imagine given its close proximity to “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” acts as a close cousin to last year’s film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s (typically glorious-looking) cinematography is along much the same lines, if anything taken to more of an extreme, with the fluid Steadicam ever-wandering, ever-searching, and rarely straying more than a few feet from the actors. Despite switching out composers (Hanan Townsend for Alexandre Desplat), the music is along much the similar classical music lines. (However, unless they’re buried in the background somewhere, there was no sign of those reported St. Vincent and Thee Oh Sees tracks either).

And some of the same visual themes are in play too, particularly the interplay of nature and grace, although the intrusion of pre-fab suburbia, along with some positively apocalyptic construction sites that Affleck passes through, gives a little more edge to the landscapes. Indeed, being Malick’s first-ever film set entirely in the present day gives it a pulse and vitality that we’ve found lacking in the last few pictures.

As for early buzz that the film was even less audience-friendly than the last, we’re not so sure. Though Malick plays a little with time, it’s much less of a stream of consciousness: the director might wander off the narrative backbone of the relationship between Neil and Marina a little, but never strays too far away, and the film feels less self-consciously poetic and meandering. This isn’t to say that it’s not indulgent – Malick certainly isn’t in a hurry, and there’s plenty of shots of figures wandering through cornfields, or two people circling around each other. But it also feels like it’s working towards a more coherent theme, and the film is somehow more satisfying as a result.

For us at least, “To the Wonder” feels like a film about absence, about longing, or “thirsting,” as Javier Bardem’s priest Quintana puts it at one point. Marina longs for her lover, longs for her daughter when she’s away, longs for a reaction from the distant Neil as their relationship becomes strained. Neil, meanwhile, is always looking for something else – a classic grass is greener type, torn between Marina and Jane, loving both, but unable to decide. And Quintana wanders the rougher parts of town, thirsting for a sign that God is listening to him in a world with so little evidence that his Lord exists. They’re all characters with a void in their existence (like Penn in “The Tree of Life”), and it hit us on a gut level.

Because for all of the glorious landscapes and images, it’s also a film of real, searing feeling, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. If one buys into the reports that Neil is something of a surrogate for Malick’s character, it’s rather fascinating the way that the director ultimately focuses on Marina, a generous and unexpected perspective, and one that, without psychoanalyzing the filmmaker too much, seems to be a way of airing his regrets about past actions. It’s also unexpectedly sexy in places. Malick’s always been one of the more sensual filmmakers out there, but there’s a bona-fide eroticism at work in places here.

While some would argue that the actors play second fiddle in a Malick picture (particularly when there’s a risk of them being cut out, as Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet, Michael Sheen and Jessica Chastain all were here – there’s not even a glimpse of any of them), we’ve never found that to be the case, and certainly not here. Affleck, who is front-and-center far more than he suggested in the mostly dialogue-free film, has the toughest role: Neil’s a cold figure, not unloving, but not someone terribly easy with intimacy. The actor fades into the background a little early on, but he’s terrific later in the picture, with one near-heartbreaking moment of regret, and one shocking moment of sudden action lingering particularly in the mind.

Former Bond girl Kurylenko, meanwhile, is a revelation, and it’s arguably Marina’s film more than anyone else’s, with "To The Wonder" starting and ending on her. The actress is luminous in the part, though, a somewhat silly, often child-like woman unable to get her lover to meet her halfway (she reminded us of Nora from Ibsen's "A Doll's House", curiously), and her heartbreaking turn should open a lot of doors for her. McAdams has the least to do of the principals, but is wonderfully haunted and sad in her brief appearances, while Bardem, as you’d probably expect, is the stand-out, able to depict the priest’s tumultuous soul simply with the way he walks. There’s also a firecracker cameo by Italian actress Romina Mondello late in the film as a friend of Marina’s.

There’s very, very little dialogue in the film, with much of what is said sometimes buried in the mix or muted altogether. Even so, we might have been tempted to drop much of the narration, which sometimes feels a bit student-poetry, especially as the visuals are normally managing to achieve the same thing. And Malick, and his five (?!) editors, lose the thread a little as the film comes to close, although there’s a terrific economy of storytelling in the cutting elsewhere. It’s a certainty that the film will prove divisive as its predecessor, but we found the director’s latest to be a beautiful, heartfelt and raw piece of work. [A-]

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36 Comments

  • Ryan | September 17, 2012 3:30 PMReply

    Time has a great review of the film. Not only does probably capture the director's intentions, but perhaps suggests th ebest way to appreciate his recent output. http://entertainment.time.com/2012/09/02/terrence-malicks-to-the-wonder-rapturous-forbidding-wondrous/

  • Natalia | September 14, 2012 11:17 AMReply

    I saw it in Venice. This film is a mistake...

  • Lou | September 4, 2012 1:34 PMReply

    His french wife Michele died in 2008... Do you think it could be for her that he made that movie?

  • Kai | September 3, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    It took everything within me to contain myself from bursting out laughing while watching this mess tonight in Campo San Polo. Easily the most pretentious film on every level that I've ever seen. The tiresome, predictable camera work, the intensely irritating editing and cardboard acting all contributed to making something considerably less than you'd expect from a college project. If I did not know better, and someone told me that this was Terrence Malick's first film, I'd believe them, and never expect to hear from the director again.

  • Inquisitioner | September 9, 2012 3:20 PM

    What film(s) have you made?

  • Fredricko | September 3, 2012 5:35 PMReply

    This sums it up best......To quote a favorite movie of mine...

    In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

  • Cat | September 4, 2012 3:03 AM

    Ratatouille is a shitty movie and that is a shitty and untrue quote. Pretty rich stuff

  • James | September 2, 2012 8:51 PMReply

    I am so happy for Olga! I saw her film the ring finger (I think it was French) there wasn't a lot of dialogue but she impressed me and when I saw it I thought to myself she would be perfect in a Malick film. I can't wait to see this film. I don't care if people boo or trash it I always enjoy Malicks films.

  • inocuous | September 2, 2012 6:38 PMReply

    Everybody claims they want unique and original movies, until they actually get one. If anyone cares to remember, Tree of Life got exactly the same audience response. Since I loved that film, I'll enjoy looking forward to seeing this too - and hope I get the chance.

  • Carson Wells | September 2, 2012 11:49 PM

    "Everybody claims they want unique and original movies"

    More than that, though they want good movies. If it's not good being "unique and original" doesn't count for much.

    And before Malick fans get all offended that is not saying this movie is or isn't good.

  • Lucy | September 2, 2012 8:47 PM

    I completely agree!

  • Mr Anonymous | September 2, 2012 3:01 PMReply

    Just so i'm getting this right this film features only narration/voiceover but no proper dialogue?

  • Franz | September 2, 2012 1:20 PMReply

    Malick is the most overrated director in Hollywood, most of films are nearly unwathcable.

  • andrew | September 2, 2012 6:55 PM

    Great, you two have a hard time watching them. Are you sharing this with all of us because your response is the "correct" one? Either way, it's simply a fact that they're not "unwatchable." I and many other people manage to sit through them.

  • C | September 2, 2012 6:35 PM

    Agreed. Unwatchable.

  • andrew | September 2, 2012 2:00 PM

    Not true. I find them immensely watchable. Re-watchable, even.

  • JD | September 2, 2012 1:05 PMReply

    Why the constant use of "we"? Afraid to take credit/blame for your opinions?

  • Oliver Lyttelton | September 3, 2012 8:28 AM

    Thank you, Hank, that's very kind. The 'we' thing is a conceit that's been in place on the site since before I started writing for it, from the idea that the Playlist is a collective of a sort. Maybe I missed a memo at some point, but other than a few freelancers and some other exceptions, I believe it's used across the board.

  • hank | September 2, 2012 6:17 PM

    Seriously, Oliver. You're the most well read and articulate voice on this site and also my favorite to read, but your use of "we" also makes you seem like you maybe kinda might sorta be insane. It's just you, right? The royal we?

  • Karly Bur | September 2, 2012 12:01 PMReply

    Oh my goodness, I had chills reading through your review Oliver! Thanks so much for this. Interestingly enough, it was after The New World where I became a big big Malick fan. Badlands and Days of Heaven aside (2 of my favorites... especially the former), I thought The Thin Red Line was pretty terrible. But The Tree of Life solidified his standing as one of my favorite and most emotionally appealing directors. I am so excited to see this. Do you think this film will get any Oscar play? Also, I'm curious to know if this film focuses as much on loss (I know your review indicates it does) because the TOL is heavily set around loss... and boy did I ever bawl my eyes out after walking out of the theater. I'm a little bummed McAdams doesn't have as much to do... she's such a great actress... wishing for more screen time!

  • lou | September 2, 2012 11:19 AMReply

    Can you explain what makes this movie R rated?

  • charles almon | September 2, 2012 11:35 PM

    Tiddies, no doubt.

  • Jett Anderson | September 2, 2012 10:37 AMReply

    Tell me... am I still in this film? Opposite McAdams? After all of the cuts, I'm curious.

  • Corvo | September 2, 2012 10:17 AMReply

    A-??? C would be too much. Pretentious, empty, embarassing movie. I didn't boo but I wanted to.

  • d | September 2, 2012 12:04 PM

    Fascinating.

  • AS | September 2, 2012 10:01 AMReply

    No thanks, I'm pretty much done with Malick (unless he makes something like Badlands again). But the booing? Seriously? What's the median age of the press corps? 9? Jesus, grow up! I don't care how much you dislike a film, act like an adult and keep it to yourself.

  • AS | September 2, 2012 1:15 PM

    @D: Okay......

  • d | September 2, 2012 12:05 PM

    "I'm pretty much done with Malick." I'm sure Malick is devastated.

  • bitemelo | September 2, 2012 11:41 AM

    Have you ever been to a film fest? You clap and cheer when its good and boo when it sucks.

  • Jason | September 2, 2012 8:23 AMReply

    Thanks for the great review. It has me very excited now to check out this film.

  • Christian | September 2, 2012 8:05 AMReply

    So, Affleck is still the lead? Does he have plenty of screentime? Argo + To the Wonder make 2012 a great year for him.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | September 2, 2012 9:23 AM

    Essentially, yes, co-lead with Kurylenko. Loads of screentime.

  • dudeabides | September 2, 2012 7:39 AMReply

    i heard there was more booing than applause, but as a long time Malick fan I'm not surprised. Excited to see what he came up with this time!

  • Martin | September 2, 2012 7:36 AMReply

    Thanks for a great review. I've heard there's lots of voiceovers in the film, in French and Spanish? Could you expand a bit on that?

  • Oliver Lyttelton | September 2, 2012 9:22 AM

    There is a lot of voiceover. Kurylenko's makes up the most, and it's in French. Bardem has a little too, his is in Spanish.

  • Daph Bajas | September 2, 2012 7:31 AMReply

    I'm so excited for this!

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