Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Let's Review Something: To the Wonder

Terrence Malick is one of those directors that I don’t always click with.  I know that he has a very large and supporting group of rabid fans and yet I have yet to be truly mesmerized by him since his debut, ‘Badlands’.  What I have always admired about Malick is that he tries to come at very deep rooted and intellectual subjects from a vantage point of almost complete detachment, allowing us to hover over these subjects without beating us over the head with them.  He’s focused on war and faith and death and celebrity and in each of these instances, even when I don’t feel the film worked as a whole, you find this otherworldly atmosphere thanks to Malick’s thickly laced scope of ideas.

I’ve said this time and time again, but Malick is a director who tends to get in his own way. 

Wait, why are we laughing again?
‘To the Wonder’ is, in my eyes, the most disjointed, distracted and overall uneven film Malick has directed.  While I’ve grown accustomed to his use of visual imagery and whispered voice over to create his ‘point’, the use of those images and whispers only reduced ‘To the Wonder’ to an elongated commercial for Zoloft.

The synopsis here is rather simple.  Neil meets the free spirited Marina in Paris, where he sweeps her off her feet and brings her and her daughter back to his home in Oklahoma.  Their relationship starts to crumble almost immediately and soon Marina and her daughter pack up and leave.  In her absence, Neil starts to court Jane, a former flame, only to have Marina crawl back home and convince him to marry her, leaving Jane out to pasture.  Marriage doesn’t fix the crack in their marriage though, and soon they find themselves at violent odds.  While all of this is happening, the Spanish pastor in their town is, apparently, struggling with his grasp on his own faith.
I was told I'd be the STAR!!!
I’m honestly not sure what Father Quintana has to do with this story, at all (completely reminded me of the useless Sean Penn segment in ‘Tree of Life’), but Javier Bardem was easily the best thing about the movie so I hate to say it should have been removed from the film.  In all honesty, this felt like a really bad editing issue.  Terrence Malick is notorious for chopping his films in half.  There was that controversy over ‘The Thin Red Line’ where he actually cut Adrian Brody right out of the film, and he was slated to be THE STAR.  So, it’s no surprise that Rachel McAdams has like three scenes, but it is disheartening that the Father Quintana storyline feels like a poorly developed subplot.  There is absolutely no flow between these two storylines, despite having Marina briefly confide in Father Quintana about her relationship with Neil (and by ‘briefly’ I literally mean for about five seconds).  Instead, these two stories feel ripped from two separate films and so I really feel like there is very important footage that was left on the cutting room floor that could have developed this into a more cohesive story.

It's OK sweetie, at least you can always say you worked with an auteur.
Or maybe Malick just wrote a story void of those essential bones.

I think that is a major issue I take with this.  Even from a purely spiritual or emotional standpoint, ‘To the Wonder’ feels vacant.  In dissecting the relationship between Marina and Neil, the film goes nowhere.  Their issues are never explored, their fights are never revealed and their tumultuous relationship is pretty much a repetition of pictures that reduce Marina to an obnoxious woman who prances around and wants to be tickled and Neil to a grump who pouts at the camera or walks out of the room with his eyes cast down at his feet.  There is no meat here, no actual character development and so we can’t care for them at all.  The spiritual angle of faith feels like an afterthought, since Bardem’s scenes are sparse and feel like such a tack on I almost couldn’t take them as part of the same film.
Wait, why are we mad again.
Yes, 'To the Wonder' is beautiful, but it has nothing to say.

For me, this gets a D.  I wanted to love this, and there is real beauty here, but the poetry of Malick's work is lost in the lack of story development.  As far as Oscar is concerned, this would be a lock for Cinematography if it weren't such an early in the year release.  At this point, it's been completely forgotten and so unless the guilds resurrect it, it doesn't have a shot.  That being said, the score is beautiful and really should be at the top of every's list. 


  1. It's a very strange film. Then again, I kind of knew what I was expecting w/ someone like Malick as it's essential an experimental film that is based on his own relationship with his second wife whom he divorced and the idea of faith and such. It's not an easy film to watch and I can see why people didn't like it. William Friedkin didn't like it either.

    1. I can get into experimental, but this just felt so...empty.

  2. Bummed that you hated this one. Bardem is a strong presence in the film, but I think his character belongs there, even if Malick didn't pull it off for you.

    Here's part of a comment I posted on another blog about Bardem's storyline: Is the priest's struggle with faith supposed to connect to the relationships problems of Neil? Are man and woman at odds like man and God (at least on man's part)? Is that love the same imperfect, day-to-day struggle?

    I think Malick was going for something along those lines, exploring those ideas. Whether or not he succeeded is another matter. Part of me actually thinks this is better than The Tree of Life, but I can see how you find it empty.

    1. I feel like I should watch this again, but not sure when I will. Maybe one night I'll have a Malick marathon and magically 'get' all of his shit (this, The Tree of Life and The New World are the ones that I struggle the most with).

      Maybe I just had a real issue with Ben Affleck's face here.

    2. Haha, another watch couldn't hurt. I've only seen The New World once, and I wasn't impressed. I need to watch it again before I finish my 2005 ballot though.

    3. The New World is pretty, but it also feels rather forced in the emotion department and Malick becomes so focused on a pretty picture that he fails to develop the very emotions he tries to shove down our throats.

  3. I try so hard to be a Malick fan, but I just can't. It's like he shoots his films from the perspective of a fly or some small insect that flies around at weird angles. I've been tempted to give this one a shot, but I'm afraid I'll just feel the same way I do about the rest of his films.

    1. Badlands is brilliant, and after watching it again I have grown to truly admire The Thin Red Line, but The New World is a beautifully shot National Geographic and The Tree of Life fails to really inspire half of what it pretends to inspire. This, for me, was even worse than that.