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Review: Malick Stumbles with 'To The Wonder'

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood April 10, 2013 at 12:04PM

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.
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"To The Wonder."
"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.

This article is related to: Venice Film Festival, Terrence Malick, Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, The Tree of Life, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Reviews, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.