To The Wonder

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Director: Terrence Malick.
Screenplay: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline, Romena Mondello, Charles Baker, Tony O’Gans.

“You have to struggle with yourself. You have to struggle with your own strength”.

Say what you will about the stylings of Terrence Malick but he’s undoubtedly a director that puts his own stamp on things and refuses to tell a story in any conventional sense. He’s more interested in capturing moments and subtle glances while pondering the larger themes of love, life and religious beliefs. When you look back at his older works of “Days Of Heaven“, “The Thin Red Line” or “The Tree Of Life“, for example, you’ll find these themes in abundance. From a personal point of view, I often find Malick’s approach to be highly appealing but with “To The Wonder“, I was left somewhat distant and uninterested this time around.

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Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is a Parisian single-mother who falls madly in love with tourist Neil (Ben Affleck) and moves with her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to America. Their love begins to dissipate, however, and Neil eventually seeks solace in his old friend Jane (Rachel McAdams) as Marina turns to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is also exploring his own dwindling faith and confusion.

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Opening in Paris with the focus on Affleck and Kurylenko who obviously have a strong emotional engagement, we are guided through Malick’s soulful exploration of love. We hear the internal dialogues of his characters as they strive for reason and understanding. Unfortunately, as a viewer, I too was searching for these things as Malick is so elusive and overly suggestive that it became increasingly frustrating and depressing as we observe hugely underwritten characters that do very little to grab your attention or even evoke any level of appeal.

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Malick’s vision is certainly a beautiful one and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki delivers some striking work. The camera pirouettes with long, sweeping movements that again capture Malick’s ethereal approach. However, after about 20 minutes, you realise that it feels like you’re watching a Chanel perfume ad and after several scenes of a cool breeze rustling through the cornfields and Kurylenko dancing her little Calvin Klein socks off under an autumnal sun, it’s apparent that this all we’re going get. The dialogue is sparse, to say the least, and there’s more nibbling on earlobes than there is any actual verbal exchanges between the characters. Affleck, in particular, says very little throughout the entire film and is only required to stand around with his hands in pockets and brood. Rachel McAdams makes an appearance of another of Affleck’s love interests but all she has to do is brush her horse’s mane on her Oklahoma ranch and let the wind blow her hair across her face from time to time. Our religious commentary comes in the form of Bardem’s afflicted priest who has began to question his spiritual fulfilment. Is god still around us? Does such a entity even exist? Would relationships be easier if we felt more of his love and presence? Do we really care?

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It’s not often I find myself criticising Malick. Like I mentioned earlier, he’s a director I greatly admire and “The Thin Red Line” is a masterwork in my eyes but this is strictly a colour by numbers effort that’s seriously aloof and lacking in narrative. Some may revel in it’s abstraction and ambiguity but, quite frankly, I found it to be tediously dull. As much as I love Malick’s affinity with nature, I’d rather have watched the fucking grass grow on this occasion.

Not so much Wonder as Wander; Malick’s latest existential elegy is meandering, pretentious clap-trap, that surprisingly (from a former philosophical lecturer) has very little to say and it’s entirely understandable why it was met with boos at the Venice Film Festival.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain (playing an ex-girlfriend of Ben Affleck’s character), Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Shannon had supporting roles in the film which were all left on the cutting room floor.

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64 Responses to “To The Wonder”

  1. I agree with you on this review. Malick is a talented filmmaker but this looked like test shots for a feature rather then a movie. Nice review

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    • Thanks Vern. I really wanted to like this as I’m a big fan of Malick but I just found this so laborious. Like you rightly mention, it seemed like he was just trying some things out here.

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  2. Ouch! I absolutely love this movie and it finished just outside of my Top 10 last year. I found it utterly captivating but also devastating and tragic. I really liked the deliberate way in which TM unwraps his pictures of love and the difficulties in finding it.

    All of that said, I can understand why others may not respond to it. It dances to its own beat and it’s a very slow and deliberate rhythm.

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    • Normally I lap Malick’s movies up bro, but this just didn’t do it for me. I thought it seriously lacked any narrative drive and I didn’t care for the characters at all. I like your line there about it dancing it’s own beat and for the most part Malick works using this rhythm. Unfortunately, it didn’t this time. I found it very pretentious.

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  3. Malick has the ability to generate love from the audience one viewing and then boredom in an other. No doubt his pictures are gorgeous treats and his dedication to the senses always appeals to me. But if the characters aren’t more than props–without much interesting to convey about them–I can be bored with a Malick film, like ‘To the Wonder’. Insightful review; I agree.

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    • His “dedication to the senses” is indeed a thing to behold, Cindy, but I can honestly say (for the first time) that I felt like Malick was taking the piss a little. It felt like he was rambling with a very incoherent story and characters that were distant and two dimensional. It really didn’t have the depth that I normally associate with him and even though the running time was relatively short, it was a real slog to get through it.

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  4. It looks and sounds pretty, but that’s pretty much all else this movie has to offer. Good review Mark.

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  5. Great review. I loved Tree of Life but for some reason I didn’t catch this when it came out. Most reviews I’ve read agree with your stance, so I think this one can wait.

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    • Thanks Fernando. I too loved Tree of Life. I thought it had a depth and profundity as I often do with Malick’s films. However, this is by far his worst. It did come out rather quickly after Tree of Life and I can only assume that this was a half-baked idea. It’s not up to his usual standards.

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      • Yeah. It’s strange. He normally waits A LOT between projects but he’s certainly been very productive as of late. Maybe he should take it slow?

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      • Exactly! If this is anything to go by, he should step back a little and make sure his material is solid enough to demand from audiences. I felt robbed by this.

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  6. daveackackattack Says:

    You know Mark as a huge fan of Malick’s work up to and including The New World I too have becoming frustrated with his films. Namely The Tree of Life. I couldn’t even get all the way through it. His wispering inner dialogue has become too precious for me. While the images are truly beautiful the “story” just isn’t there. Maybe his best film IMHO, The Thin Red Line, was so good because it was the only film he’s directed that was written by someone else. Having been based on James Jones’s novel the characters seemed so much more fleshed out. One can’t help but wonder if he’s tarnishing his resume with each consecutive film he’s putting out now.

    A lot of those pics above reminded me of Days of Heaven. You know he might be better suited to making wordless films to convey his poetic style of filmmaking not unlike Godfrey Reggio’s films. They’d be amazing in IMAX.

    Lastly I’m curious what you thought of his protégés films like early David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow), Shane Carruth (Upstream Color) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).

    Came across this while reading up on To The Wonder. Tell me what you think. Excerpts from Carlos Reygadas’s “Silent Light” (2007). The whole film can be found on youtube.

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    • I actually really liked The Tree of Life, Dave. I sung that films praises while I know many others weren’t impressed. In fact, I’ve always kinda done that with Malick’s work up until now.

      I’d agree that The Thin Red Line is his best film. It’s actually in my top ten of personal favourites. You could be onto something there. His characters did some more fleshed and that could be a result of him taking a step back on writing duties.

      Those films you mention. I’ve not got around to Gordon Green’s George Washington but I did enjoy Prince Avalanche recently. Carruth’s Upstream Color was an impressive piece of work but I never entirely got a full grasp on the material. As for Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, I thought that was magnificent and turned out to be my favourite film of its year. Such a great little movie.

      I can’t get that video clip to play on my phone at the moment but I’ll swing by a little later on that.

      Thanks, as always, for stopping by, man. Your comments are always well thought out and very welcome.

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      • daveackackattack Says:

        I know you aren’t able to get to the videos right away. No rush.

        I actually liked the prehistoric scenes which Malick had planned to release separately. Not sure what’s happening with that.

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      • Apparently the prehistoric scenes were supposed to be for another film he had in mind. Eventually both ideas became merged as one and The Tree of Life is the result.

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      • I too am a huge fan of Malick’s work. The Thin Red Line and The New World are two absolutely stunning pieces of film that I treat myself to every 6 months or so. However, To the Wonder like you so eloquently put in your review Mark, is nothing short of a “meandering, pretentious clap-trap” that I grew tired off extremely quickly. It was beautiful yes, but empty of any substance or character.

        I hope the two offerings Malick has lined up for later this year have more focus, direction and substance, as I really would hate for one of my favourite directors to tarnish his legacy with a flurry of self-indulgent ramblings, masquerading as movies.

        P.S I too am intrigued to give Dave’s recommendations a go, as we three seem to be on the same page with regards to the films we hold in such high praise.

        Beasts of the Southern Wild was the stand out film in 2012 for me. It utterly blew me away. As for The Tree of Life, it took me a second viewing before I fully appreciated its magnitude and purpose. Again, absolutely stunning work. Come on Terrence, we know you still have it!

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      • Glad to hear you agree Allan. It’s such a shame when your expectations are raised so high and then you’re so miserably let down. I’m aware that this is a personal story of Malick’s and reflect some of his own experiences but it just came across as self indulgent drivel.

        Like you say, there was no substance or characterisation and I grew very weary very quickly too. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that with a Malick film. Such a disappointment.

        I hope that he does put more effort into his upcoming projects. I’ll still check them out for sure, but I will have reservations. It would seem on this evidence that Malick can, in fact, do wrong.

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  7. theipc Says:

    “Malick’s latest existential elegy is meandering, pretentious clap-trap”

    Sounds bullshit.

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  8. I struggle with Malick. I’ve never actually managed to get through The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life left me really torn. I appreciated the cinematography and the visual metaphor but I also found it really pretentious.

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    • I normally like him, Abbi, and thought The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life were superb. This, however, didn’t work for me. Beautifully delivered but still a turgid piece of nonsense.

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  9. Filmfocker Says:

    Spot on accurate review mr marked.. I love this dudes films very much, this one however, did appear like a perfume ad..
    Pretentious, time wasting and total patronising skid pants..
    I adore lovely French films where lots of nothing happens, this effort doesn’t touch the paper of art house French films, if it were paper, I wouldn’t wipe myself wih it for sure..
    Shame this tm guy has put this out as I will be reluctant to wast a few more hours of my life on this type of pish..

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    • Well… So… Filmfocker. I can see you and I are on the same page here. Pish indeed. Such a shame that this guy normally waits a long time between films but it’s apparent that he rushed this one out. Much like pinching a shite when really you should have taken your time and pondered over it. 😉

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  10. Ah, we disagree here mate. Excellent review nonetheless! Good to read something from the opposing point of view :).

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    • As a Malick fan, I really expected to be praising this one, Joseph. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. I took very little from this and reckon that Malick has left far too much in the editing room. I was very disappointed to say the least 😦

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  11. Nice review, Mark. I’m not a Malick fan myself, and this one certainly didn’t do anything to change that stance, for many of the reasons you’ve stated.

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    • Cheers Chris. Admittedly, I do admire Malick but this was just a little too far for me. Who’s knows? Maybe if I was in a different mood, I would have taken something from it but I doubt it.

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  12. Hey, Mark. I like this a bit more than you do, but I agree it isn’t Malick’s best work, not by a long shot. Some of it works really well, I think. But some of it? Just doesn’t.

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    • I can see many Malick fans taking something from it, Josh but it just felt less profound than he normally is. I had a tough time getting through it, to be honest.

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  13. Top write up mate. I’ve only seen The Tree of Life of Malick’s work and that left me really torn about it, wasn’t too sure what to make of it. Not sure I’ll end up seeing this one any time soon to be honest, but it’s a shame you didn’t like it mate as I know you’re a fan of Malick’s stuff.

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    • Cheers Chris. I do really Malick but this left me feeling a bit cheated. As if he was just going through the motions, you know? Visually it’s absolutely striking but style does not always a good film make. If you’re unsure of Malick as it is, I’d leave this well alone.

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  14. Good review Mr Mark.

    I actually had forgotten I had watched this so I went back through my pages to see if I had reviewed it and indeed I had, it surfaced in a Bite Sized Review format! hahah. That can’t be saying much about it, can it?

    Turns out when I went back to what I had written, I guess i had liked it at the time. The more I think back right this instant, the more this movie kind of irritates me. It was so much nothing going on. Yet, the beauty could not be denied. So I have to say my reaction then to my reaction now has leveled out and is closer now to where yours is.

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    • Ha! A bite sized review sounds about right for this. It demands far too much from you and doesn’t deliver very much in return. There’s certainly no denying it’s beauty but there’s really no substance underneath it all. It left me quite frustrated and disappointed when all was said and done. Cheers buddy!

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  15. Nice review. As you know I was a fan, enough to put it on my top 10 list, but I do agree with a few of your criticisms (albeit at a far lesser extent) that there is a lack of character development and action. That being said, To The Wonder really enthralled me and I think it’s very underrated.

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    • I remember you liking it, Charles, which gave me hope that Malick still had more to offer up his sleeve. However, it was bit of a slog for me and definitely didn’t pay out as much as I’d hoped. Not anywhere near close.

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  16. “… it feels like you’re watching a Chanel perfume ad” Ouch! I’ve been meaning to see this one as I’ve heard mixed reviews but I’m still curious as I respect that Malick always marches to the beat of his own drums. But sounds like this one is far more poetic for its own good eh? Wow, crazy to see how many actors’ work end up in the cutting room floor, too. I guess any actor hired by him shouldn’t really announce it UNTIL the film comes out, ahah.

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    • That’s exactly how it felt, Ruth. I was waiting for a particular brand name to appear on screen. That’s not to say that it’s not beautifully delivered. It certainly is and you could maybe claim that it’s too poetic for its own good. That I probably wouldn’t have minded but, I didn’t even find it poetic. I didn’t find much substance to it at all. All those names that were cut out could likely have changed the film entirely and I’d rather have seen that version. Such a shame, as I do really like Malick.

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  17. Popcorn Nights Says:

    Good stuff mate. I have not seen it yet but have had it sitting around for a while now and will hopefully get to it before too long. I’m a long-term fan like you but he’s certainly not infallible so will be interested to see this in light of your review.

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    • I’d be interested in hearing how you get on with this, Stu. I had very high hopes but those were dashed within the first 20 mins. It’s actually not a long film but, my god man, it feels long.

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  18. I really struggled with Tree Of Life Mark – I can appreciate what Malick was aiming for but I just found it too abstract and indulgent. I had been tempted to give To The Wonder a go but your review makes me think twice about it!

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    • I was a big fan of Tree of Life, Natalie. A big fan!! But if you found that too abstract and indulgent, them I’d advice giving To The Wonder a serious miss. I’ve never seen Malick so indulgent with a threadbare script.
      The Thin Red Line remains his masterpiece in my eyes.

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      • Thanks for the warning Mark. I’ve been thinking about revisiting some of the movies that I didn’t personally connect with on the first watch but that have gained a lot of praise from other viewers. Your recent posts on The Master and now Tree Of Life have encouraged me to take another look and see what I’ve been missing – you might find some posts on these in the next few months!

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      • That’s great to hear, Natalie. I’m always happy to hear that someone’s up for for having a reappraisal. I done it recently with Taxi Driver. It wasn’t a film that I was overly impressed with in the past but now it’s actually one of my favourite movies. I judged wrongly and unfairly before.
        As for The Master and Tree of Life, I love them. Two very strong films in my opinion. I look forward to your posts.

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  19. Even though I disagree with you about the film (it was in my top 5 films of last year) I really enjoyed reading this review Mark. Some great perspective.

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    • I appreciate that Tim. It always nice to hear that someone take on board what your saying, even though their own personal feelings are different. I’m glad this one worked for you. I was hoping it would work for me too but it wasn’t to be.

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  20. Excellent review, Malick’s movies are always divisive but always gorgeously shot.

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  21. Big fan of his, but this never seemed appealing. great write up dude/

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  22. Man, this hurts to read. I love Mallick but can’t bring myself to see this yet. I’ll suck it up one day. Loved the read.

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    • It hurt me to watch, Mark. I love Malick too but I couldn’t get into this at all. I thought I was going to when it began, as it looked and felt magnificent. However, it becomes tedious and uninteresting very quickly.

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  23. This movie reminds me of The Tree of Life, I was not a fan of that narrative. Sounds similar … oh no!

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    • I was a fan of Tree of Life as I normally am with all of Malick’s work but if you didn’t like the narrative on that one, there’s a strong chance you’ll hate this even more. It’s very, very dull.

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  24. Oooh, not a winner for you eh! Looks like something I should just give a skip and a wide berth!

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  25. Great review. When the trailer to this film emerged I was a big fan of it. I enjoyed all the artistic bits in the film. It is beautiful. But, the film overall did not live up to my expectations. I kept thinking ‘if only Malick tried to involve us emotionally here or there, or in that particular scene,’ or ‘if only he explained this or that a bit more, so that we care more’. ‘The Tree of Life’ was somehow a more fulfilling experience. Now I am thinking about Malick’s next film ‘Knight of Cups’. I like the fact that Christian Bale is in it.

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    • I’ll still be checking out Malick’s future films but I was bitterly disappointed here. Like you say, I wasn’t emotionally involved either and really didn’t care for the characters. This is very surprising for Malick as he normally achieves this with ease. Thanks for reading!

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  26. Saw the link you left, and I gotta say, this sounds a lot like Knight of Cups haha!! I’ll probably watch this at some point just to complete his filmography

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