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Discuss: Is Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’ Another Profound Masterpiece Or A Parody Of His Worst Tendencies?

Discuss: Is Terrence Malick's 'To The Wonder' Another Profound Masterpiece Or A Parody Of His Worst Tendencies?

The last movie that Roger Ebert reviewed was Terrence Malick‘s “To The Wonder,” which seems appropriately fitting. “To the Wonder” is a movie of quiet contemplation, one where an Oscar-winning movie star like Ben Affleck is mostly found in stoic silence and conventional plot mechanics are either eschewed or completely ignored. It doesn’t take on the cosmic dimension of his equally divisive “The Tree of Life,” but “To the Wonder” does contemplate similarly big questions about humanity, the world and our place in it. Ebert himself seemed to wrestle with his opinion before forming a conclusion (and acknowledging its complications): “There will be many who find ‘To the Wonder’ elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

There are those of us at the Playlist who felt, like Ebert, that “To the Wonder” flirts with transcendence and others that felt like the movie is intermittently brilliant but often veers uncomfortably close to self-parody. Undoubtedly, it’s unapologetically presented in Malick’s style of steadicam, evocative images and poetic narration to guide the movie. Some have found it’s too indulgent in Malick’s comfortable wheelhouse of techniques, while others are more forgiving because of the ideas it attempts to tackle. But which is it? Brilliant or boring? Moving or muddled? Or maybe somewhere in between. Undoubtedly, you will have your own distinct reaction when you see it soon. Read on to find out what we each thought of the movie, and then weigh in with your own thoughts below.

Unlike most, I didn’t fall over myself, basking in the warm glow of Malick’s last film, the admirable but impenetrable ‘Tree of Life.’ It was one of the more anticipated movies of my lifetime, having learned about the mysterious “Q” project that followed “Days of Heaven” and then, to have it resurface as “Tree of Life,” which took so long to put together that it was enough to wonder if, even after it was shot, anyone would ever be able to see it. For me, the different parts were too dissimilar to cohere into something truly impactful – the journey into deep space and primordial beginnings was lyrical, but aimless; the stuff with Sean Penn seemed particularly disconnected, especially during the movie’s third act, when he washed ashore on some kind of celestial tide pool.

Which brings us to “To the Wonder,” a movie every bit as ambitious as ‘Tree of Life,’ but on a much smaller, more humanistic scale. There aren’t any ponderous implications about the birth of the universe and the religious allegories are relegated to the margins, not written all over the page. It’s true that Malick indulges in some of his worst tendencies – too much voiceover, a plot that doesn’t move forward as much as it drifts in place – but (for me, at least) the movie felt incredibly real and personal; oftentimes positively relatable.

In my estimation, “To the Wonder” is a more powerful, singular accomplishment than ‘Tree of Life,’ and just might be Malick’s best movie since “Days of Heaven.” Both “Days of Heaven” and “To the Wonder” are primarily concerned with human relationships (in both cases, a love triangle that strains and creaks) and not some oversized thematic dimension. (There might have been more of a spiritual element if the relationship between Javier Bardem and Ben Affleck had been at the center of the film, as it once was.) If Malick’s bad habits are present, I’ve accepted them like anyone else who I love but who occasionally annoys the fuck out of me. I’ll take the twirling and the sun peeking out between tree leaves, especially if it’s during the course of a movie as beautifully melancholy and heartfelt as this.

His stylistic tics might now be as easy to duplicate as a high schooler doing a fake Wes Anderson goof on YouTube, but there’s a profoundness that goes along with them that goes beyond the superficial. Malick seems to be reaching for the ultimate cinematic goal: truth. And, with “To the Wonder,” I think he’s grabbed it. — Drew Taylor

And I thought the esoteric ‘Tree Of Life’ was going to be Terrence Malick’s most uneven and inscrutable films (and likely my least favorite of the bunch). Malick movies of late keep drilling down, distilling into a feeling more than into a narrative or a plot. Let’s be clear: this is absolutely ok. Though, perhaps not so ok when that feeling is so ephemeral that apparently it doesn’t latch onto any profound, moving or poignant matter. All of this is deeply subjective, of course. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say and many, many people are seeing a lot of value in Malick’s latest searching, essence-questing meditation on love — it’s fleeting nature, spirituality and faith, including Roger Ebert, many of The Playlist and our official review from Venice. While wondrous and rapturous at times, I have to admit that sometimes “To The Wonder” feels like one long trailer for a Terrence Malick movie than an actual movie and I almost cannot resist the urge to playfully rib and mock it. I’m a big champion of Terrence Malick films, as many on The Playlist are, but I’d be lying if I said “To The Wonder” deeply moved me. Like Andrea Arnold‘s “Wuthering Heights,” which is Malick-esque at times (but which I found to be an oppressive portrait of so much excruciating mud, wind and rain over and over and over again), “To The Wonder” may make or break for you, depending on your tolerance for shots of women twirling in fields — over and over and over again. “To The Wonder” also takes itself so seriously that it’s absolutely humorless. Granted, this could likely be said something about every Malick film, but it begins to veer very close to self-parody — as if someone were simply trying to make a Funny or Die version of a Terrence Malick film (which personally I would love to see). 

What rang deeper with me (and I’m not a particularly religious person at all) were the picture’s themes of faith and spirituality; Javier Bardem’s character and his existential dilemma of having put his trust in God, but never really daring to speak aloud that he felt an absence of faith. The two themes, love and faith, kind of intermingle, but never quite coalesce, like two gusts of winds that meet for a moment and then are dispersed into nothing. “To The Wonder” is almost obsessed with gliding cameras and movement, mood and tone, but it’s so evanescent, it feels more like a whisper than a deep, everlasting story. Perhaps that’s exactly the point and that heart-aching longing for something missing in your life is a profound pain and experience that everyone in life has likely once felt. It’s just that I’m feeling that expressly in my critical mind and not in my heart or soul and in a Terrence Malick movie, that’s almost a kiss of death. Admirably digging for something deeper beyond narrative and pretty to look at, the picture sadly doesn’t penetrate or move me much. I need to chalk this up in the “miss” category for me and I hate comparing apples and oranges, but “The Tree Of Life” contains much more cinematic nutrition and food for thought. Terrence Malick films generally inspire wonder and awe, and I think this one falls a little short. – Rodrigo Perez

We seem to live in a very cynical time and that’s because cynicism is easy. Perhaps that is what makes Terrence Malick more out of step with contemporary cinema than we already attribute to the reclusive (or rather, press shy) filmmaker. “To The Wonder,” in particular, operates on a level of such open vulnerability, that it can understandably be jarring and ripe for smirking. Full disclosure: I found that Sonic ad and trailer parody amusing, but it’s also an easy joke and not particularly sophisticated. While more than a few have crossed their arms and stood at distance from “To The Wonder,” scoffing at the constant steadicam or perhaps one too many twirls in an open field by Olga Kurylenko (and admittedly, Malick is arguably at his most indulgent in that sense, with this movie), they’re engaging within the movie at its most superficial level.

An unofficial autobiography of sorts, it doesn’t match his life story beat for beat, but Malick was undeniably drawing on his own experiences and relationships in this film, putting those into a blender with his spiritual queries, and laying them out fairly open. “Earnest” is often used a cheapshot, but “To The Wonder” is, in the best way possible, but it also asks the audience to shed a defensive coating and any distance (no matter how remote) we may have from a movie and to experience it with the breadth of our beliefs and history. A common complaint is that Malick’s films lack a real plot, but again, it’s less about what’s going to happen in the narrative as what is happening right now with the individual.

The Tree Of Life” and “To The Wonder” are companion pieces, and they find a filmmaker deep in a crisis of faith. They wonder aloud how we can grasp the full dimensions of love, life and death, when the purity of the natural world, our complexity of human coexistence and our innermost souls all seem to been turned rotten to various degrees. Is it because God has left us or we have left God? There are no answers, but these films search and search — perhaps Malick isn’t finding the movie in the edit, maybe he’s just trying to find answer. Yes, Malick’s films are undeniably gorgeous, but they are also dark and haunted and pained, forever yearning, continually awed and also imbued with loss. (Also, it should be mentioned that Malick’s camera is also critical — the plain and ugly suburbs don’t go unnoticed and particularly the characters Javier Bardem‘s priest consoles are far from the Hollywood pretty of the movie’s leads).

“To The Wonder” is flawed, excessive and imperfectly formed. But it’s also probing, curious, carefree and cruel, contemplating questions and ideas with an intense and wondrous emotional bravery few filmmakers possess, let alone exercise. — Kevin Jagernauth

To try and describe what actually happens in “To The Wonder” would be a very brief synopsis. An American man (Affleck) enters into a relationship with a French woman (Olga Kurylenko) and invites her and her daughter to move to the United States with him. Once there, he becomes distant and the couple begin to drift apart. She moves back to Paris and he briefly dates another woman (Rachel McAdams), but then she comes back and they continue to grow apart. A crumbling relationship isn’t exactly new cinematic territory, but seeing an auteur like Malick put his personal stamp on a tale like this sounds like an interesting proposition. Unfortunately as depicted here, it’s really not.

It was reported a while back that Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastian and Barry Pepper had all been cut from the film, but you shouldn’t feel bad for them. Feel bad for the actors who are actually in the film and have so very little to do. There are no real characters or relationships onscreen here, just scene after scene of the actors swirling around each other in a field, in the house, gesturing, touching each others faces, smiling. It doesn’t read as impressionistic, it just looks like they’re being filmed doing acting exercises. Affleck looks particularly lost as it appears that he’s literally been directed to “not speak” so for 90% of the film, he can only look and gesture at the actresses he shares the screen with. Kurylenko is ostensibly the main character (though she’s credited after Affleck), but doesn’t have much more to do except narrate her dissatisfaction. It would be hard to pinpoint a single scene where if removed would in any way change your understanding of the film.

Affleck said that this film made “Tree Of Life” look like “Transformers” and while his hyperbole was obviously intended to brace audiences to set their expectations accordingly, it’s not accurate. The film isn’t any more experimental in nature than his last film, it’s just less ambitious and far, far less interesting. Using the same cinematic techniques as his last film but taking away the grand themes, epic scope, period setting and breathtaking cinematography, what you are left with is not much. It will likely be ignored come awards time — though it should be a lock for Most Onscreen Frolicking — but I’ll be most curious to see if Malick’s admirers will start to wonder if their cinematic emperor is no longer wearing any clothes. – Cory Everett

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, I’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. It’s a certainty that the film will prove divisive as its predecessor, but his latest is a beautiful, heartfelt and raw piece of work. —An excerpt from Oliver Lyttelton’s review from the Venice Film Festival in 2011.

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 BayTransformers” 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.

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