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Review: Malick Stumbles with 'To The Wonder'

by Matt Mueller
April 10, 2013 12:04 PM
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"To The Wonder."

There are no dinosaurs in Terrence Malick's sixth feature, but there are bison, sea turtles, prairies, toxic sludge, sun-dappled water, more prairies, a conflicted priest (Javier Bardem) and enough pirouetting by Olga Kurylenko to make you imagine that she probably felt dizzy at the end of each day's shooting.

It's a floatier, more ethereal variety than Moira Shearer's mad spinning in "The Red Shoes", but since twirling with her arms outstretched seems to be her favoured mode of expression it sometimes leaves you wondering if her character Marina isn't supposed to be a little unhinged herself -- a dreamy free spirit from Paris who seemingly takes the wrong turn in life by allowing herself to be caged in the Midwestern tract home of Ben Affleck's aloof, inexpressive Neil.

Affleck has joked that "The Tree Of Life" looks like "The Transformers" compared to "To The Wonder". The former certainly delineates a grander, more robust and ambitious narrative than the slim, simple storyline of the latter, which doesn't dip into the origins of the cosmos but does append faith and God to its primary concern, which is the elusive, confusing, mysterious nature of love as surveyed within the lush, spacey delirium of a typical Malick dreamscape.

At times it's a many-splendored thing: the two women who worship Affleck in "To The Wonder" (the other being a hometown girl played by Rachel McAdams, who he briefly falls for after Marina flees back to Europe) feel it passionately and express it a thousand times over in breathy voiceover and transparent facial cues; Affleck, who probably has four lines in the movie but does engage in plenty of melancholy embraces and wistful walks through tall grassy fields, doesn't seem to feel much at all; and Bardem, in a subplot that crops up now and again when you've all but forgotten it, grapples with his love for God as he mingles with his flock in the small Oklahoma town that's also home to Neil and Marina.

Malick is a revered cinematic poet, deservedly so, and striving for lyrical transcendence on screen is his worthwhile ambition. But it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card either. "To The Wonder", to me, played like a slighter (and more repetitive) version of "The Tree Of Life" in most respects, its flowing, exquisite imagery and elegant soundscape certainly pleasing to the eye and ear but the moves and motives of its sketchy characters failing to offer enough substance to nourish the spirit. At one point, Marina's daughter observes as her mother continues her very long wait for Neil to pop the question, "There's something missing here." She's not wrong.

"To The Wonder" hits theaters on April 12, via Magnolia. Our TOH! interview with Olga Kurylenko is here.


  • Fr. Dennis Kriz, OSM | May 9, 2013 8:21 AMReply

    I probably enjoyed "To the Wonder" more than "The Tree of Life" because the story, while remaining an allegory was more compact. I agree with the reviewer here that "To the Wonder" like Mallick's preceding film had a theological underpinning and would suggest that the key to understanding the film is to compare the relationship between Kurylenko's character and Affleck's with Bardem's character and God. I wouldn't necessarily agree with Mallick, but I get what he was trying to express. -- Fr. Dennis at the Movies

  • Joe | April 12, 2013 9:05 PMReply

    "Malick is a revered cinematic poet, deservedly so"

    No he's not. He's clown who makes stupid movies and pisses off nearly every actor he works with. Look no further than Christopher Plummer's thoughts on working with Malick.

  • JG | April 14, 2013 10:44 AM

    "He's a clown who makes stupid movies", as interpreted by the average American viewer, who is clownish and stupid.

  • Joe | April 12, 2013 9:03 PMReply

    That's because Malick is a wacko who doesn't have a clue what the hell he is doing.

  • Paul Maher Jr | April 10, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    What a lazy uncommitted review. I concur with the others here. Read Ebert's review and then read yours again. Regardless, you can sleep easy knowing that Mr. Malick will never read your review.

  • C | April 13, 2013 1:06 AM

    I don't think Malick is an idiot, I like a lot of his work very much, but I admit that I wasn't a fan of this film. As for this Paul guy, I'm not quite sure what you're odd, fan-boy obsession with Malick is, but just because someone didn't agree with what you or Roger Ebert thought of the film doesn't mean that someone who didn't care for it is 'lazy' or 'uncommitted' to what he wrote. This isn't even that harsh of a review; if you want that, go look at what Rex Reed had to say.

  • Joe | April 12, 2013 9:04 PM

    Perfect example of an assclown pissed off because someone doesn't agree with him. Grow the hell up. Malick is an idiot who should be making wildlife documentaries instead of films.

  • dudeabides | April 10, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    And that is why Roger Ebert's opinion is worth more than every other critic's. So happy his last review was for a Malick film, since Ebert saw Malick's work like a filmmaker admiring another filmmaker's work. Not a critic looking for flaws. Embrace the imperfect...

  • AE | September 3, 2012 10:54 AMReply

    Is it just me or are we lately seeing more films that violently divide opinion among the critics; I'm thinking films like Margaret, Paperboy, Melancholia, Holy Motors, all films some love and others hate. It's becoming for me a sure sign that something is interesting and worthy of attention.

  • syc | September 2, 2012 3:09 PMReply

    You just explain the theme of the film in few word, complain the detail in the rest of article, and value it with one paragraph...
    I hope they're right!

  • dudeabides | September 2, 2012 1:45 PMReply

    ive been seeing good reviews from variety, guardian and one of your colleagues so I hope they're right!

  • David Lean Fan | September 2, 2012 10:39 AMReply

    Does this surprise anyone? Certainly not me.

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