To the Wonder Review

Posted: October 19, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

to_the_wonder_ver9_xlgWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

I feel like I should like Terrence Malick more than I actually do. Here is a filmmaker who is truly an artist, makes films which are technically remarkable, and ambitious in their thematic pursuits. Theoretically, he’s everything I want in a director. And yet, I’ve never been able to completely embrace a Malick film. I’ve liked his films and I certainly admire them, but I always feel like I’m being kept at a distance. Still, I have a lot of respect for the man and his films do interest me. His latest film, To the Wonder has a lot to be interested about. For one, the film came out only two years after Malick’s previous film, a record for the director. The film also received a much more negative reception than Malick’s other works and most of the movie’s supporters don’t seem too passionate in their admiration. I found all of this very compelling and now that I’ve finally seen To the Wonder I can add my thoughts.

The film follows Neil and Marina (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko), a couple who at the start of the film are madly in love. However Marina is conflicted about the idea of marriage due to being previously married and her strong religious beliefs. The two still spend a lot of time together growing closer and closer, but eventually their relationship begins to take serious strain.

That plot description might read like a traditional romance story, but that isn’t the case here. The storytelling here is very abstract, even my Malick standards. There is minimal dialogue and while it is sometimes used for exposition, most of the lines are more related to feelings than anything else. The story and characters are largely told through the body language and facial expressions of the actors. For the most part, things still move smoothly though occasionally motivation is not entirely clear. Though the unique storytelling technique takes a bit to get used to, it is actually very rewarding and one of my favourite aspects of the film. In addition to making the story more interesting, the technique itself is a bold risk and I admire Malick for taking the chance. That said, the story does have its problems, mainly the frequent reappearances of a priest character played by Javier Bardem. I can see why his subplot is included and how he contributes to the film, but the story just feels unneeded.

Like the rest of Malick’s filmography, To the Wonder is very impressive on a technical level. The New World and The Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki returns here and continues to impress. Shots are frequently gorgeous and I love the way lighting is used. I don’t know if the cinematography is quite as good as what was seen in The Tree of Life, but it’s beautiful all the same. The film also has a very powerful score by Hanan Townshend and the editing adds a lot to the film’s atmosphere. The actors, particularly Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, deserve credit for very strong and easy to overlook performances. As mentioned, there isn’t much in the way of dialogue so they need to say a lot nonverbally and both do a great job.

Ultimately, what holds To the Wonder back is certain lack of weight, which hasn’t been an issue in other Malick films. I may not have always been on board with films like The Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life, but I still realized how ambitious the themes of those films were and the astounding lengths Malick and everyone involved would go to make the film they wanted to make. That isn’t to say To the Wonder is a shallow film, it’s definitely a meditation on love and religion, but it never left me in awe in the way that the aforementioned films did.

In addition to the relative distance I usually have with Malick’s work, To the Wonder also suffers from an expendable sub plot and a lack of more profound insight. Still, the film also does a lot right, particularly on a technical level, and I continue to be impressed by the risks Malick is willing to take. This does feel like a more minor work in Terrence Malick’s filmography and it isn’t a film I’d recommend to someone who isn’t a fan of the director, but To the Wonder is still a very good film which, of nothing else, should be praised for its artistic vision.


  1. CMrok93 says:

    Nice review Dan. While it definitely isn’t Malick’s most powerful story ever brought to the big screen, the visuals and the overall sound just get you involved with everything. However, the story is weak.

  2. brikhaus says:

    I can’t stand Malick. His shit is impossible to watch. Your first line sums up what everyone thinks about Malick. I have never come across anyone who admittedly really likes his work.

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