A few weeks into its run, it’s probably safe to say that Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” — a lyrical meditation on love, God, and Sonic Drive-Ins starring Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck — is a first for its wildly acclaimed director: a critical flop. It’s his first “rotten” movie at Rotten Tomatoes, where its 42% ranks almost 20 points lower than Malick’s next least regarded work, 2005’s “The New World.” Even many stalwart Malick fans have temporarily abandoned their beloved auteur. But one writer believes the fault here lies with Malick’s critics, instead of with Malick himself.
TheWeek‘s Damon Linker says “To the Wonder” is, contrary to consensus, “an ecstatic cinematic tribute to God” and a great film, one whose “profoundly religious — and specifically Christian” messages have been lost on most critics. “Whether or not the silence is a product of the theological illiteracy and scriptural ignorance that typically prevails among overwhelmingly secular journalists,” he writes, “something essential about these remarkable films has been missed.” Here’s more of his analysis:
“On a deeper level, the film is Malick’s meditation on the Christian vision of love — and the obstacles that we perversely place in the way of satisfying our irrepressible longing for it. Anyone who’s fallen in love is familiar with the feeling: The world appears transfigured. In the first words of the film, Marina describes it as being ‘newborn,’ called ‘out of the shadows.’ In a series of quick scenes filmed in Paris, the lovers touch and embrace each other bathed in radiant sunlight. In voiceover, Neil calls Marina ‘my sweet love… my hope.’ Marina says their love unites them, makes one person out of two.”
Linker’s interpretation of “To the Wonder” is certainly valid. So did the majority of critics miss the boat? Malick’s “The Tree of Life” certainly wasn’t lacking for “profoundly religious” messages or themes, and a lot overwhelmingly secular journalists loved that movie. Linker argues that critics, who he says did a “passable job” reviewing “Tree of Life,” still mostly overlooked “its numerous theological and scriptural allusions” and even made fun of its ending, in which Malick created a magic hour vision of a heavenly afterlife. Mostly, he argues, they were just moved by Malick’s imagery.
That’s certainly possible. It’s also possible “The Tree of Life” was just a better movie than “To the Wonder;” more focused, more beautiful, better acted, and more profound, religiously or otherwise. I’d argue you don’t need to be Christian to appreciate the Christian message in a great movie — “It’s a Wonderful Life” has moved generations of heathens to tears with its story of charity and simple human kindness. For most people — Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, or none of the above — “To the Wonder” does not have that kind of impact. A message can be profound, but if it’s delivered in a boring sermon, it’s still going to get lost. On this film, at least, I remain a skeptic.