'To the Wonder' (2012) Movie Review

Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in To the Wonder
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in To the Wonder

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is The Tree of Life 2 though on a much smaller scale. It's also what appears to be a signal Malick is no longer interested in traditional narratives. While the story is told in a linear fashion, I'd be shocked if more than 10-percent of it contained dialogue that wasn't voice over and the number of shots focused on water and the distant sun on the horizon have to fill almost half the picture. I say none of this as an all-encompassing complaint, merely an indicator of what you're in for.

To the Wonder
Grade: C+

To the Wonder"To the Wonder" is a Magnolia Pictures release, directed by Terrence Malick and is rated R for some sexuality/nudity.

The cast includes Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko and Jessica Chastain.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again captures the sun-kissed world the same as he did in Tree of Life and, as expected, it's beautiful, but is it also pointless? To the Wonder is filled with so many random shots of water, walking in wheat fields, twirling in the backyard and bedroom wrestling it's more of a 112-minute visual poem than it is a movie, told through the collective voices of its four main characters.

It's a menagerie of pretty images and narrative suggestions that allow the viewer to make of it what they will, big or small. The story can really "mean" anything, not the least of which being the search for God on an Earth that appears to be poisoned from within. Has God forsaken us?

The story is largely guided by the voice over from Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem, two characters out of their "element" as it were. Their voice over is in their native language and neither is happy with their surroundings. Kurylenko plays Marina, who's come to Oklahoma with her boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), but upon arrival her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) isn't fitting in. Eventually, she returns to Paris and Neil begins a relationship with a local woman (Rachel McAdams).

Bardem, playing Father Quintana, has conversations with Marina before she decides to return home, but he too is lost and alone, searching throughout the entire film for what I initially presumed was a lost love, but soon came to realize he was searching for God. Searching for answers. His search takes him door-to-door while Neil's job has him testing ground samples where toxins have been found and residents complain of a black ooze rising from the cracks in their porch.

This is the playing field you have to work with. Certainly there is a bit more to it than I have revealed so as not to ruin the experience for you, but from a story perspective these are the roots. The characters wander aimlessly within this space as their voice over puts thoughts in our heads to accompany the images on screen. None of these thoughts are entirely clear, meant more as suggestions pointing you on an eventual path.

The most curious thing about the voice over, though, is Malick's decision to have the characters narrate the film in their native language. Kurylenko speaking in French, Bardem in Spanish and Affleck and McAdams in English. The official synopsis refers to Kurylenko and Bardem's characters as "exiles" living in America. Both wish to return to their native country, and who could blame them, considering the soil has not only been poisoned, but it's suggested so have the people and animals living there.

Is this a message aimed not at the Earth as a whole, but at the state of America today? There's certainly something to this as Malick's coverage of a grocery store treats it as an obvious example of excess as Marina's daughter marvels at its size. It's the second time we are made to look at closely at America, the first of which being the dramatic shift from the streets of Paris to the barren Oklahoma landscape. What it all means is for the audience to decide, I'm certainly feeling around in the dark for meaning.

This, however, is exactly what the film does. It presents nuggets of ideas and leaves them for you to interpret. I usually like this technique, but when it is this ambiguous and grey it becomes a little tiresome.

There's nothing to say regarding the performances unless smiling, gazing in the distance or seductive glances are considered acting. The actors are nothing more than pieces of Malick's landscape doing as he wishes. They are the pretty people in a world where the sun is eternally on the horizon, its rays glancing over a shoulder, between the leaves in a tree or through a hole in the fence.

The film gets its title from the medieval site of Mont Saint-Michel, nicknamed "The Wonder of the Western World". Located in Normandy, France, Marina and Neil visit this site in the film's opening moment. At the top stands a church and a statue of St. Michael the Archangel. The film's religious elements are unmistakable and it won't be the last time Malick returns to this location.

To the Wonder, upon reflection, is a film that melts into your mind and is impossible to forget due to its visuals. Instead of calling it a movie I would say it's more of a tone poem, a symphonic movement of visuals in 112 minutes. The mistake is to look at it as a movie and expect a compelling narrative. Whether it's compelling or not could be argued for hours.

Also, to say a film is poetic is often to jump to the conclusion that means it's great. For many To the Wonder will be great, they'll take more out of it than I did and for that I will be jealous. I can appreciate it for what it is, and discussing it was entertaining, but for as filled as it is with lush imagery, a lot of that imagery felt empty in meaning.


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  • bss121

    I actually have a feeling that Malick's next two projects, Knight of Cups about the movie industry and the untitled one about the Austin music scene, will have a much more traditional narrative. I could be totally wrong, but for some reason I really don't think he's going to continue with these non-narrative structures.

  • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

    Brad, It seems my lowering of your expectations worked. ...

    Ok, atleast to some extent.

    • adu

      haha, Gautam you're still at it! :)

      • http://cinemaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

        Yes, and this has to do with what I experienced with Tree of Life. I had high expectations with it, and when I watched it for the 1st time, I didn't like it at all. But then later I re-watched it and I loved it. Since then that movie has kept growing on me, and now it's one of my all time favorites.
        It's funny what expectations can do to you. Many won't want to accept it but truth is, actually it does. Infact I would attribute low expectations to the the huge critical success of Silver Linings. Not that movie won't be worth it, but it's just that people didn't expect it to be so good.
        And we as humans love to be surprised. It's our favorite desire.
        Ok, now i am veering towards sth else. I should stop it. :)


    Thanks for the review Brad. This will be another Malick film I can skip.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

    I'm interested in this just because it was filmed in Oklahoma, where I lived for five years in college and it's a place I absolutely love. Whether it will get a theatrical release in here in Richmond, VA I don't know.

  • Connor

    Still no distribution even after Toronto and Venice? Not good, but still want to see this badly.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    I have no interest in this film but since my mother is a huge Malick fan, I'll probably get dragged to it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Jamie/ Jamie

    i'm a little disappointed, although i was prepared for it. reviews are pretty much in line with brad's view. i'm sure i'll appreciate it, for what it is, and little more. i really liked tree of life, mostly because i was a new father at the time that i saw it. i LOVED thin red line.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Criterion10/ Criterion10

    I'm definitely inerested in this one, solely for the hype that it is even more anti-narrative than Tree of Life. Personally, I really like Malick. I have seen all of his films except for The New World, and I really like all of them. Even The Tree of Life. I'll check this out at some point, although I must admit, it doesn't seem like much of a film but more like a museum piece. I hope Terry hasn't gone off the deep end.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HarryFuertes/ Harry Fuertes

    I'm still excited to see this even though reviews are mixed. What Brad is saying is even though the movie has flaws, overall it's just not for him, which I expected. I expect I'll still enjoy the movie. Probably not as much as Tree of Life, but it'll be a respectable film as time goes on. But I digress, I have to accept that it could also be a huge disappointment. Oh well...we'll always have The Master.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AdamsLostApple/ AdamsLostApple

    It will be interesting to see what distributor finally picks this up. IF no majors or subsidiaries want this film and IFC films doesn't acquire it, it's prospect for being seen outside of 2 theaters in NY, LA and then straight to DVD seem quite limited. Cohen Media Group, Strand, Alamo Drafthouse etc are very limited in terms of marketing and theater expansion.....

    • bss121

      I doubt it will go to a bigger name independent distributor, but I'd be shocked if it didn't go to someone like IFC or Magnolia. Malick's name alone should allow for enough interest to give it a theatrical run in major cities that Cohen, Strand, etc. wouldn't do.

  • Princess of Peace

    Someone who reviewed the film for indiewire (and liked it) said that it had a warm reception from several distributors at Toronto. So I guess they are trying to negotiate the best deal. I do think it will be a Magnolia or IFC rather than a Strand (although they put out some wonderful films).

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      We were debating at the fest and our best guess was a studio such as Oscilloscope.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Criterion10/ Criterion10

      The one thing that would be cool is that if IFC picks it up, then Criterion would probably handle the home video releases as they have a strong relationship with IFC.

  • Princess of Peace

    I think that Oscilloscope is a possibility but so are IFC and Magnolia. I agree that the IFC/Criterion connection would be great. I would say that Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics are out.

  • Newbourne

    Damn, I wanted this one to be good. I dig the "poem" features (like The Fountain, The Tree of Life, etc.) so maybe I'll like this one too. I always try to stay far away from a Rachel McAdams movie though. I hope she doesn't appear too much in this one to ruin it for me.

  • http://timeforafilm.com Alex Thomas

    I didn't like Tree of Life, I don't think I'll bother with this one now.

  • dslacker

    Saw it in Toronto and pretty much agree with the review. I loved most of Matlick's films - including Tree of Life. By the hour mark I was waiting for this one to end. Yes, he makes a point or two and, yes, the pictures are often pretty, but he's capable of so much more.