REVIEW: “To the Wonder”

TO WONDER POSTER

Terrence Malick is a filmmaker that marches to the beat of his own drum. To be honest, that’s one of the things I like the most about him. We say this often but here it unquestionably applies – you know a Terrence Malick movie when you see one. Malick has a distinct style of lyrical and visual storytelling and you either respond to it or you don’t. Personally I love it. Now sometimes his style is more impressive than his finished products, but for the most part Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, his last film “The Tree of Life” was my clear favorite film of 2011.

Malick is a director who takes his time and only makes a film when he’s ready. This is evident by the fact that he has only six movies on his directing resume. His latest, surprisingly only two years after “The Tree of Life”, is another exercise in lyrical and contemplative style. It’s one of my most anticipated films of 2013. It’s called “To the Wonder” and for me it’s another soul-stirring gem that throws the textbook on conventional moviemaking out the window. Instead Malick is making another deeply personal film, possibly his most personal movie to date. It’s also his most romantic, most spiritual, and most tragic film all at the same time.

The movie follows a young couple as they navigate the unquenchable joys and the devastating heartbreaks associated with love. We first meet Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris, France. The two are madly in love and Malick expresses it through a rhythmic series of romantic and absorbing scenes in such beautiful Parisian settings such as the Luxembourg Gardens and the banks of the Seine River. There’s also a majestic sequence with the two outside of town at the gorgeous Mont Saint-Michel. Neil and Marina can’t seem to be able to control their affection for the other. There’s a strong focus on touch in these scenes whether it’s holding hands or running a hand across the shoulder blades. The romance between Neil and Marina is sublime and beautiful and I never doubted its authenticity.

TO WONDER 1

Marina, a Paris native and single mother, decides to move with her daughter to the States in order to be close to Neil. They land in midwestern Oklahoma where Neil works as an environmental safety inspector. The contrast between the energetic and vibrant Paris and their sparse and sometimes empty Oklahoma community almost serves as a metaphor for their relationship. The two who were as passionate as the French city they consumed now battle creeping bouts of emptiness and an emotional wedge that we watch grow and grow. It becomes painfully obvious that their relationship is hurting but neither seems to know what to do.

Then there’s the story of Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest in Neil and Marina’s area. Quintana is a troubled man. He has a deep love for the Lord but he feels disconnected. He’s dying to have the intimacy with God that he once had. He visits the sick, the poor, and the needy. He shepherds his flock. Yet there’s still a void in his soul that he desperately wants to fill. But he’s also a lonely man bound by the shackles of the priesthood an its strict rules. Watching Bardem’s solemn face and lonely, tired eyes really drew me to this character. It did surprise me how little he had to do with what seemed like the main focus of the film but Malick shows some moving similarities between his struggles and those of Neil and Marina.

Their stories do begin to connect and we watch as everything plays out. But don’t expect a tight narrative with a fully disclosed ending. Malick is more interested in having us observe and experience than being baby fed an entire story. He wants us to feel, to sympathize, to grow angry, and to meditate. Our time is spent observing and Malick lays his canvas before us. On it he explores inner conflicts, poor and costly decisions, and revived hope. It’s presented through an artistic machine that utilizes everything including the stunning score, the beauty of nature, a graceful camera, and the natural ambiance of the world surrounding his characters.

Affleck and Kurylenko are transcendent. The film features little to no dialogue with the exception of voice-over narrations therefore the two lead actors basically perform off of each other or in scenes alone. Neither ever seem aware of the camera and both get lost in their performances. Affleck was a great surprise. He’s quiet, sincere, and a stout and strong contrast to Kurylenko’s subtle elegance and grace. And speaking of Kurylenko, I think she gives an awards worthy performance. But while the performances are key, a Terrence Malick film is usually made in the editing room. Don’t believe me? Just ask Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain. Both shot scenes for the film but all of them ended up on the cutting room floor. Regardless the editing is sensational and the film moves like a page of good music with the exceptions of a few patches of repetition in the second half of the film.

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As with his other movies, Malick uses his visuals to draw us in and also tell the bulk of his story. His sensational command of his camera and his artist’s eye for capturing beautiful shots are essential to his success. His camera is constantly moving and it always seems perfectly positioned. I was absorbed in what I was seeing and his fluid and poetic transitions from shot to shot kept me that way. Even for those who don’t respond to the film as a whole, they’ll be hard pressed to not be fascinated with Malick’s visual artistry.

There will be plenty of people who can’t latch onto “To the Wonder”. It will be perceived as slow, confounding, and lifeless. I couldn’t disagree more. I loved the film and while it’s certainly not as challenging as “The Tree of Life”, it’s still a captivating piece of cinema. It doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t adhere to a conventional storytelling formula. It asks the audience to think and to feel. If you’re not open to that you’re probably not going to respond well to this film.

In his final review before his unfortunate passing, the late Roger Ebert said this about “To the Wonder” : “(Many will) be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply.” I think he’s right and some early reviews have shown that to be true. But I believe Malick has given us another standout picture that takes a real (sometimes uncomfortably so) look at relationships, faith, and the quest for love in both. Yet it’s all told through an artist’s lens with entrancing metaphoric imagery and a steady grace that could only come from a Terrence Malick film. I know many are going to struggle with this movie but for me it’s the first great film of 2013.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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49 thoughts on “REVIEW: “To the Wonder”

      • An I’m not certain I understand why there’s been some backlash. It’s certainly a simpler and more focused film but I really responded to it. I have some ideas as to why there have been some bad reviews but I’ll leave that to myself for now. πŸ™‚

  1. High ratings from you means chances are I will like it. I LOVED Tree of Life and don’t know much about Terrence Mallick. And with Javier Bardem in the cast, it can’t be bad….thanks for the head’s up!

  2. Marvellous review Keith. As a big fan of Malick, I can’t wait to see this one. The tree of Life was my second favourite of 2011 (after Drive) but proof that Malick still delivers the goods. Just the photos available have me believing that I’ll really enjoy this.

    • AWESOME. If you loved “The Tree of Life” I think this one will work for you. I’m not saying it’s better but boy it got to me. Anxious to hear your thoughts on it.

  3. I was very curious about what you thought of this Keith, wow, sounds like you enjoyed this very much. I respect Malick that he marches to the beat of his own drum, though I read one review (a negative one) that said this one is too Terrence Malick-y, ahah. I am still very much intrigued by this and I hope I end up being in your camp. I’m not yet sold on Olga as an actress though and Affleck is a better talent behind the camera πŸ˜€

    • I really love this film Ruth. I went back and forth between a 4.5 and 5 star rating. It’s that good. As for Olga, She blew me away. Of course a lot of it has to do with Malick’s direction. But anytime she’s on the screen she’s amazing. Bardem is also a big attraction and Affleck is perfect in the hands of Malick. There’s also a strong thread of faith woven throughout the entire film. It’s his most open look at faith that I’ve seen. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts. This one is sure to divide but I don’t think Malick cares. πŸ™‚

      • Wow, now I’m even more intrigued that there’s a strong theme of faith in it. I heard that Malick is a Christian but of course we never know just how deep one’s faith is. It’s cool that he’s not afraid to tread on such topic, though I wish it’s not so cryptic.

      • Oh yes this is very open about it (although there are a couple of brief scenes that clash with that). Bardem’s character drives the Christian theme and there is no mistaking it (especially when Christ’s name is used so often – and not as an expletive for a change).

  4. I’m ecstatic to see such high praise for this film. I’m a huge Malick fan and seeing some of the negative reviews out there so far has really bummed me out.

    Great stuff Keith.

    • Anxious to hear the thoughts of my fellow blogging buddies. It’s received its share of negative reviews from critics but I loved it. I’ve seen it twice and it was even better the second time around.

  5. Nice to see To The Wonder getting some love. Personally I loved the film to bits! It felt hugely personal to me as it does touch familiar ground.

    It’s surprising to me how little praise Olga Kurylenko has got for the film as I think she gives a superb performance here. And as you said, Affleck was a big surprise to me too as I really connected with that character in a level I rarely do.

    Thanks for the great review! I’ll be checking your site more thoroughly later today. Cheers!

    • Thanks for the comments. I’m also glad to hear someone share my enthusiasm for the film. It connected with me early and I never lost that connection. I do think the film is at its best when Kurylenko is on screen. She was fantastic, wasn’t she?

    • I agree 100%. What sold her to me was how she seemed so unaware of Malick’s camera at all times. That truly gave the feeling that we were just watching everything she was doing without her even knowing. Contrast that with Rachel McAdams who I think struggled a bit with that. Now McAdams wasn’t bad. She just didn’t come across as naturally comfortable as Olga did.

  6. Terrific review. I saw this at TIFF and was blown away, even if the audience wasn’t lol. Malick is easily one of the most cinematic directors to ever step behind the camera. I reviewed To The Wonder on my film blog not too long ago, would love for you to check it out. I just started out though, so be aware of my sites simplicity :). One of the better sites I’ve seen by the way, great job, I am now following.

    • Thanks for the comments and compliments. I’ll definitely check out your review. I’m glad to hear more praise for this film. A lot of the main stream critics haven’t felt the same way but I think they’re missing out. This was beautiful and poignant cinema. I’ve seen it twice now and I feel compelled to see it again. I love it when a movie effects me that way.

      • No problem! This movie has definitely been misunderstood by the main stream reviews.Those who’ve seen it and discouraged others from doing so probably completely misunderstood the film, Malick in general for that matter. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for checking out my blog! It means a lot. It’s tough starting out and to get any publicity is good, let alone one from a site as accomplished as yours. Thanks again!

  7. “….especially when Christ’s name is used so often – and not as an expletive for a change” That’s great to hear! My ears get red every time I hear the Lord’s name used in vain, that’s something I wish I’d NEVER become desensitized about.

    • Yes, yes, and yes. I’m with ya 100%. And I don’t know, maybe I’m too shallow, but I avoid entire films that are soaked with that language. I’ve taken some ribbing for that in the past.

      • Hey me too! I don’t really care what people think. I’m a person of faith first and film blogger second (or third), so yeah, I don’t care for foul-mouthed films or those that are blatantly blasphemous. I don’t feel like I’m missing out either.

    • Nope. No dinosaurs. πŸ™‚

      I absolutely love The Tree of Life and as mentioned it was my favorite film of that year. This film is much more focused and centered although it still features the signature style.

  8. Excellent review, Keith! It’s a beautiful film, and it’s beginning to grow in my estimation. Now I want to see it again! πŸ™‚

    Oh, and I agree on the performances. I thought all four of the main actors did a great job. I’d love for Kurylenko to get some awards recognition.

    • Thanks! I’ve seen To the Wonder twice now and I really think I liked it even better the second time. So much of what Malick is doing came to life for me. It’s such a beautifully tragic film and its clearly a personal endeavor for Malick.

      Thanks again for checking out my review.

  9. Excellent review, Keith! It’s a beautiful film, and it’s beginning to grow in my estimation. Now I want to see it again! πŸ™‚

    Oh, and I agree on the performances. I thought the four main actors did a great job. I’d love for Kurylenko to get some awards recognition.

  10. I’ll try to see this movie soon, even though I’m not a fan of Mallick. The only one of his movies I liked was Thin Red Line. His style is something that bores me and I must say I barely made it through Tree of Life. But I heard amazing things about Kurlyenko and that as you wrote she gives award worthy performance, so I’m curious about that.

    • I can understand Malick’s style not working perfectly for everyone. It’s a very deliberate and sometimes indulgent style. Honestly you get a lot of that in To the Wonder but the stricter focus really separates it from The Tree of Life. You’ll see similarities but you’ll also notice the differences.

  11. I have enjoyed reading through your blog and am glad to read from someone else who loved To the Wonder! What a unique and fascinating movie – the final scenes in particular have haunted me for weeks.

    • Thanks a lot. I appreciate the kind words. Oh I’m with you on “To the Wonder”. It’s such a poetically tragic film and I was totally absorbed in it from the start.

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