A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2013


2013, R, 112 mins.


Ben Affleck as Neil  /  Olga Kurylenko as Marina  /  Rachel McAdams as Jane  /  Javier Bardem as Quintana


Written and directed by Terrence Malick

It was with very great anticipation and excitement that I approached seeing Terrence Malick’s newest film TO THE WONDER.  This is especially true considering that the legendary filmmaker has made just five films in the last four-plus decades.  Perhaps my real eagerness to see TO THE WONDER was really born out of my reaction to Malick’s last work, THE TREE OF LIFE, which certainly emerged not only as his greatest effort, but also as one of the most ambitious films that I have ever seen as a critic.  Following that 2011 masterpiece would be a very tough act to follow indeed.  

Malick has opted for, I think, the most logical choice for a follow-up – try something fresh and daring.  To label TO THE WONDER as abstract filmmaking would almost be a criminal understatement, but it also serves as one of the film’s overpowering strengths and one of its regrettable weaknesses.  Less a work of conventional drama and storytelling, TO THE WONDER is more like a mood piece, a tone poem on the nature of the male/female relationships and the fragility of the human condition.  If anything, Malick has always been known as one of the foremost visualists of the movies, and TO THE WONDER features him at the zenith of his painterly prowess with crafting evocative and atmospheric imagery.  The negative consequence of this is that the film becomes so unclear, so intangible, and so impenetrable on any discernable dramatic level that I found it really hard to give a damn about any the story’s characters.  What we are left with is an exquisitely beautiful film to look at that also happens to be an emotional void throughout.  

Malick absconds away from traditional storytelling and performance conceits here.  There’s virtually no dialogue in the film spoken by characters (granted, there’s ample Malickian voiceover narrations from the characters that try to comment on their inner condition).  There’s also very little in the way of a plot or character development, as Malick opts to relay his film through free-forming visuals, lyrical editing, and lush ambience, which essentially means that TO THE WONDER is almost a silent film.  If I were to describe the story of the film, then I suppose I would label is as one about love in various forms.  Ben Affleck plays Neil, an American in Paris that has been with Marina (the gorgeous Olga Kurylenko) for some time and is enjoying the infancy of their loving relationship.  Over time, Neil yearns to head back home to Oklahoma, and he convinces Marina and her young daughter to accompany him back to the States. 



Alas, as Marina and her daughter try to acclimatize themselves to their new home and cultural surroundings in America, her love of Neil begins to wane and their relationship hits a major stumbling block.  As a result, she begrudgingly decides to return to France, leaving Neil alone.  He rebounds, so to speak, with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old girlfriend from the past, and just as they are about to enter their own happy and adjusted relationship, Marina reveals herself again and relays to Neil a desire to return back to America.  Feeling somewhat responsible for looking after his old girlfriend, Neil abruptly breaks things off with Jane and gets back together with Marina in hopes of giving their past relationship another chance.  Regrettably for the two of them, what once was a courtship of unbridled admiration and respect slowly begins to devolve into less intimacy and more emotional wedges being placed between them both. 

Again, Malick crafts his film with the eye of a soulful artist.  Shot in Oklahoma and France, Malick is able to sort of effortlessly imbue a deliberate and ethereal beauty in nearly every composition with a natural and improvisational zeal.  This gives TO THE WONDER, much like most of his previous films, a real haunting, dreamlike allure and vigor that’s hard to dismiss.  The film forces us to make dramatic connections and understand the mindsets of its characters primarily through its visual splendor, which is not an easy feat to pull off.  More often that not, the film comes off as an elaborate and convoluted puzzle that places confidence and respect in viewers to piece together and make sense of the whole on their own. 

Yet, for as lush and gorgeous as TO THE WONDER is as a primal aesthetic experience, I left the screening of it feeling hollow and empty.  Malick places so much emphasis on avant-garde flourishes and going against the formulaic and routine movie conventions that I think he forgot about the simple virtues of developing the personas that populate his film.  Even though Neil, for instance, is involved in the entire story here, he’s nonetheless a charmless, formless, and weakly considered character that we really learn nothing about over the course of nearly two hours.  This is not helped by the fact that Malick sort of frustratingly places Affleck off-kilter most of the time in shots and scenes to the point where we sometimes wonder if he’s even a part of them.  There is something to be said about the film being staunchly from the perspective of its two female leads, but Neil is so exasperatingly and crudely defined that you have to remind yourself that he’s a focal point in the narrative. 

I could stare at Kurylenko and McAdams all day long in just about anything.  Alas, and much like Neil, Marina and Jane are such minimally and loosely considered creations that they become as disinteresting as Affleck’s suitor.  Then there is Javier Bardem’s appearance in the film as a priest that, for what I saw, barely has any moments in the film with any of the main characters, but serves as a spiritual pillar, I guess, for Malick’s deconstruction of his themes of love and lost love.  Bardem’s character, like the others, is having a crisis of faith, but I rarely gained an insight as to why in the film, not to mention that Malick never finds a cogent or seamless way to juxtapose his story with that of the other three characters.  Oh, we do get those whispery voiceover tracks from the characters (again, a Malick staple) that try tries to comment on what’s transpiring in their souls, but here they come off as more pretentiously obtrusive than they have been before in a Malick film.  Borderline distracting, actually.   

Let me be blunt: Malick has never made a bad film.  In fact, he has made some of the most memorable films of my lifetime.  Unfortunately, TO THE WONDER is just not in the same pedigree of his past superlative efforts.  It’s less a bad film, per se, than it is one that’s kind of a bold and daring experiment that needed some much needed tinkering to be considered a fully fledged dramatic film.  Leaving it, I gained a full sense of Malick's complete command of style, mood, and nuance, but what’s lacking here is a reason to truly care about what’s transpiring on screen.  Many lay filmgoers have found his films irksomely elusive for decades, and my argument back to them has been to give his collective works a chance to fully enrapture them with their poetic beauty.  TO THE WONDER, though, is so aggressively indecipherable and oblique that it just may leave Malick fundamentalists scratching their heads with fidgety anxiety and inspire obsessive watch checking. 

  H O M E