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Review: To the Wonder (2013)

To the Wonder (2013)

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Premise: An American (Ben Affleck) meets a single mother (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris and moves her and her daughter to Oklahoma. When tensions arise in the relationship, he reunites with a high school friend (Rachel McAdams).

What Works: To the Wonder is the latest film by Terrence Malick, a filmmaker of great ambition and terrific technical skill. In each of his films, Malick attempts to get a handle on broad themes like warfare and violence in The Thin Red Line or economics and society in Days of Heaven. In To the Wonder, Malick pontificates about home and family. This film is a collage of events and images in which an American man takes in a French woman and her daughter in an attempt to create a family but eventually both find that the realities of domesticity are not entirely satisfying. The way To the Wonder captures the passion of new love and its slow disintegration under the weight of everyday life is very gracefully done. Unlike The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s previous film, To the Wonder is far more accessible and in many respects it includes the best of aspects of Malick’s filmmaking. It has the ambition and lyricism of his better works but it is also a little more restrained. The Tree of Life was too long, too nebulous, and too self-indulgent but To the Wonder demonstrates a lot more self-discipline. The visuals remain concrete and it has the framework of a narrative and that is enough to give the film a shape that the audience can wrap itself around. At the same time, To the Wonder retains Malick’s style and within this context that style is able to reveal difficult or challenging ideas. This is a film about nuance and finding truths in the subtle details. That is accomplished in scenes such as Kurylenko’s character’s arrival in America. She sees the United States as an outsider would and the film’s style is able to convey that experience. Other thematic moments are similarly clear without the movie becoming didactic. The unique style of To the Wonder requires the actors to behave very naturalistically and unguardedly and they do that, allowing the nuance to show through. All of the actors understand this and avoid the kind of self-consciously dramatic performances that so often pass for acting in mainstream films.

What Doesn’t: Terrence Malick is one of American cinema’s most unique filmmakers but his output is bound to be frustrating for most audiences. If mainstream motion pictures are like novels, Terrence Malick’s movies are like poetry. The director’s films have a lyrical, free form to their moviemaking. He does not constrain himself to plot, at least not in the way it is usually presented in Hollywood films, and many of his recent movies such The Tree of Life and The New World attempt to get in touch with broad, elusive truths. To the Wonder is shot and edited in a far more familiar style than many of Malick’s other pictures and it is much more accessible than many of his other movies. Nevertheless, this film is going to be mysterious and possibly frustrating for mainstream audiences. The challenging qualities of To the Wonder are to its credit but viewers should realize what they are submitting themselves to. To the Wonder does have its shortcomings, primarily in the two major subplots. The story of the priest, played by Javier Bardem, and the relationship between Affleck’s character and his high school crush, played by Rachel McAdams, don’t go quite as deep as they ought to and Bardem’s priest is so interesting that a separate movie about him would be compelling. Also, because the picture has a smaller scale than the epic scope of The Tree of Life it may be a little too straightforward for those who were enamored by the 2011 film.

DVD extras: Featurettes and a trailer.

Bottom Line: To the Wonder is a challenging film but it is also quite beautiful and one of Terrence Malick’s better works. Although it does not have the scope or ambition of some of his other pictures, Malick is more successful here than he has been in broader movies.

Episode: #457 (September 22, 2013)