“Just two years after The Tree of Life—hardly more than an eye-blink in terms of his usual production-rate—Terrence Malick has returned with something which could be seen as a B-side or companion piece to that film,” suggests the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “It is a bold and often beautiful movie, unfashionably and unironically concerned with love and God, and what will happen to us in the absence of either. To the Wonder does not quite have the mad and magnificent ambition of The Tree of Life, nor a male performance to match Brad Pitt’s in that picture. Malick’s visual language is much in evidence: whispered narrative, a surging orchestral score, looming, circling camerawork to accompany wordless outdoor memory sequences which often take place suffused in sunsets and lens flare…. And yes, it is sometimes over-familiar and on occasions comes close to self-parody.”
Guy Lodge at In Contention: “‘Tone poem.’ ‘Meditation.’ ‘Elegy.’ ‘Prayer.’ Ghastly words when abused, the lot of them. Malick’s cinema somehow wears them well. So why, given this tonal and textual consistency, did I feel admiringly detached from The Tree of Life, finding its explosion of formal beauty a discontinuous front for its unnourished human expressions, but far more stimulated and moved by his latest? To the Wonder is structurally a more modest, more linear film than Tree… Though Malick’s requisite rolling landscapes and infinite bruise-colored skies are still very much present and correct (Emmanuel Lubezki devotees should prepare for, well, the wonder), it’s the director’s most intimate film since 1978’s Days of Heaven, as well as his most gaspingly romantic.”
And for the Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttelton, it’s “a more coherent, deeply felt and satisfying film than its predecessor, and one of the highlights of the festival so far. The plot, such as it is, is more or less the one widely reported, and seemingly based, if some are to be believed, on Malick’s own experiences of marriage and divorce. Neil ([Ben] Affleck), an environmental inspector, and single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris, and while he’s a little resistant to commitment, asks her and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to move to Oklahoma with him. They live happily together for a while, but things start to crumble a little when her visa expires and she’s forced to return home for a time. Neil then reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend now divorced and managing a ranch on her own. Somewhere in the mix is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Marina’s priest and confidante, who’s suffering from something of a crisis of faith…. While some would argue that the actors play second fiddle in a Malick picture (particularly when there’s a risk of them being cut out, as Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet, Michael Sheen and Jessica Chastain all were here—there’s not even a glimpse of any of them), we’ve never found that to be the case, and certainly not here.”
“Perhaps the film’s most potentially divisive stroke,” muses Variety‘s Justin Chang, “is the direct connection it makes between romantic and Christian devotion, as Malick again draws on a chapter of his life, specifically his 1985-98 marriage to a Frenchwoman, laying personal history bare with an emotional nakedness that seems especially startling in light of his reclusive rep…. The lyrical earnestness with which Malick enshrines the glory of love may provoke a spasm of embarrassment early on, approaching a well-worn cinematic subject with the ardency and naivete of an explorer stumbling on a new world. There’s beauty but also banality in aphorisms like ‘You lifted me from the ground’ and ‘If you love me, there’s nothing else I need,’ and Marina’s breathy French-language v.o. can’t help but occasionally flirt with Euro art-film parody. But the flush of first love soon vanishes, along with any sense of vapidity, as Marina and Tatiana come to live with Neil in Bartlesville, Okla., whose wide, flat landscapes and golden wheat tones look straight out of Badlands.”
“Perhaps,” suggests a seemingly frustrated Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter, “there is a hidden rhythmic and thematic structure behind the facade of To the Wonder that has to do with the coming and going of seasons and emotions, the rise and fall of relationships, the difficulty of sustaining love and faith and so on, all connected to the use of music and the echoing of voice-over. If so, however, it doesn’t assert itself meaningfully during the act of watching a film that seems drained of life and ideas rather than sustained by them.”
For Matt Mueller, writing at Thompson on Hollywood, it’s “played like a slighter (and more repetitive) version of The Tree of Life in most respects, its flowing, exquisite imagery and elegant soundscape certainly pleasing to the eye and ear but the moves and motives of its sketchy characters failing to offer enough substance to nourish the spirit. At one point, Marina’s daughter observes as her mother continues her very long wait for Neil to pop the question, ‘There’s something missing here.’ She’s not wrong.”
“Here in Venice,” notes Tomasso Tocci at Press Play, “many are already saying that To the Wonder is just a patchwork of leftovers from The Tree of Life, and that’s harsh, even despite the end-credits confirmation that footage from Malick’s previous film has in fact been used. In a broader, less derogatory sense, these criticisms might also be true. This film feels like a smaller island in the Malick archipelago, more fragmented and full of things we’ve seen before, but also highly permeable and interconnected with the others, almost in dialogue with them.”
Updates: Malick’s sixth feature, notes Time‘s Richard Corliss, “pushes cinematic experiment to a degree not previously attempted by this restless, mysterious auteur — or, really, by anyone else working in narrative film. As Ben Affleck, its putative star, reportedly said after seeing To the Wonder, it ‘makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.’… This could be the most formally radical post-narrative American film ever to be released—if it ever gets released.”
Well, at the moment, John Hopewell is reporting at Variety that rights have been sold for some time to distributors in France, Germany, Italy, Latin America, and Scandanavia. FilmNation Entertainment has just cut a deal for Japan and is looking to “close the last key territory,” the U.S., in Toronto.
“It may be that we’re being taken into a dream life of remembered fragments here, or perhaps a series of flashbacks in the instant before death, played in extreme slow motion,” proposes Screen‘s Lee Marshall. “The problem is that Malick’s dream of life, with its narrative core of a weak man with a paralysing fear of emotional commitment, just isn’t that interesting or original. The pictures are pretty, the music is pretty, the existential voice-overs are pretty: but after almost two hours of wistful, message-larded prettiness, Malick’s latest visual symphonic poem has us squirming in our seats.”
Updates, 9/3: Haven’t mentioned yet that the Wonder of the title is the monastery on top of Mont Saint-Michel, “the tidal island known in France as the Wonder of the West,” as the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin points out. “But the characters in this uneven but utterly beguiling picture are also engaged in a spiritual climb towards a state of loving and being loved in equilibrium, and while the ascent is often blissful, the fall can break your heart…. To the Wonder is an earnestly and unashamedly Christian film, and it draws explicit parallels between divine and earthly love.”
“Malick’s new film is awful,” declares John Bleasdale at Cinespect. “[Y]ou could say it is really a dance movie, but if that was the intention, then the dance, we should note, is crap. The magic hour is over. It’s time to change tack.”
“Repetition and an over-familiarity of Malick’s visual tics and style begin to grate,” finds Time Out London‘s Dave Calhoun. “A sterile sheen does the film no favors either: interiors, exteriors, clothes and nature alike feel overly groomed and too neat and clean to be real.”
“The storytelling and performances stutter on occasion and the references to religion come close to sermonising but this is still an utterly original film from a director reinventing his medium as he goes along,” argues Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent.
Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson: “To the Wonder can be understood as a religious interpretation of the proverb ‘He who hesitates is lost’ (which could also be a key for understanding the reason behind Malick’s suddenly prolific output). Moved by this spirit, I have no problem admitting that To the Wonder—a concatenation of visual non-sequiturs masquerading as profundity, where all emotions are stated and not one is actually felt—is a complete failure.”
“For its unbridled passion and vitality,” argues Adam Woodward at Little White Lies, “Wonder deserves to be admired, if not unconditionally adored.”
Update, 9/4: “Ever since Pauline Kael described Days of Heaven as ‘an empty Christmas tree,’ Malick has always had to dodge the charge that he’s all style, little substance,” notes Jamie Dunn at the House Next Door. “For stretches of To the Wonder, I felt a similar sentiment—and it was a novel experience. I assumed for a while that it was I who was having the off day, but when a cacophony of pantomime boos echoed throughout the Sala Darsena auditorium, it became apparent that I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the film’s ethereal nature. I didn’t join in the international choir of Statlers and Waldorfs though. This may be a feather-light doodle, but it’s a ravishingly beautiful one by a great artist in second gear.”
Update, 9/9: “After directing four films in 42 years, Terrence Malick has now made three films in two years, with a fourth about to shoot, and another ongoing. ‘He’s on a roll,’ laughs his regular producer Sarah Green.” Andreas Wiseman: “Screen sat down with producers Green and Nicolas Gonda—who have both worked on the three films Malick has directed since 2011—to discuss To the Wonder, Malick’s working methods and future projects.”
Update, 9/10: “I never thought I’d find myself trying to describe a Terrence Malick film I really loathed,” sighs Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “It’s not that the visuals of To the Wonder are any less dazzling than those of his other films, though the overall aesthetic does lean too far towards the tidied up naturalism of National Geographic magazine—in this case applied most often to the Oklahoma magic hour. It’s more that I couldn’t care less about the people he’s chosen to study, perfect examples of God’s creation only if God likes fashion and interiors magazines.”
Updates, 9/13: “The typical Malick film takes place in a dream of the past,” writes the LA Weekly‘s Karina Longworth: “[T]his Malick film features characters who behave as though they live in a psychological space that predates the Fall of Man—but they don’t. Their natural habitats are drive-throughs and pedestrian-free sidewalks. They’re both creatures of this world, and distanced from it: They are members of the species that invented things like mega-supermarkets, that tamed and industrialized the natural world, and yet they can’t conquer basic shit like fear and skepticism and desire…. As far as we can tell, aside from his work, Neil’s life is devoted to his literal chasing of women who whirl like dervishes and/or seem to float on air, to playing his part in relationships embodied by two extremes of action: with Marina, love is undulating in patches of sunshine on the carpet like housecats; with Jane it’s gazing rapturously at cattle. In any context other than a Terrence Malick movie, this behavior would be just fucking weird. And by taking pains to ground this action in the recognizable real, Malick makes it even weirder.”
“From moment to moment, To the Wonder can be confusing, but cumulatively it makes sense,” argues Noel Murray at the AV Club. “And Malick finds so many subtle, wordless ways to convey the movie’s theme. One of the best: Affleck and Kurylenko’s new home, which they live in together off and on for over a year, without ever fully unpacking or decorating—because to do would be to settle in to something that may never be as perfect as they’d hoped.”
Adds Scott Tobias: “To a degree, I understand (and share) the frustration of those who prefer it have 30% less frolicking and wheat-caressing… but if you’re looking for a thesis statement on Malick’s career, Bardem’s narration at the end will do. It left me a blubbering mess, and was as close as a godless wretch like me gets to a religious experience.”
“To the Wonder is an obviously personal work,” writes Jordan Cronk at the House Next Door, “but at the expense of any actual characterization we receive only ciphers and figures, intangible beings wandering their way from Malick’s soul to the screen with an obvious passion but with little wider functionality. In the end, it’s a particularly outré B-side to The Tree of Life‘s surprisingly more lucid and utilitarian watershed.”
“Is it incredible?” asks Ray Pride. “I don’t know, not now, not yet. It will take an army of Frenchmen, at least one inspired clergyman and Matt Zoller Seitz even to begin to come to terms with this latest turn in Terrence Malick’s spiritual strivings.”
The Boston Globe‘s Wesley Morris: “Whatever Malick is going through—more than one colleague here has surmised that he’s gone deeper into Christianity—it’s a drain on imagination. You could feel higher powers in The Tree of Life. It heaved with religiosity. This new movie barely breathes at all.”
Updates, 9/15: “Much like De Palma’s Passion, I fear that many negative impressions of the film will be based on misreading what the movie’s trying to do,” writes MUBI’s Daniel Kasman. To the Wonder is “a tone piece, an evocation of waxing and waning affections, the sensuality of abstractly motivated but highly tangible, feeling moments.” It’s also “the smallest and most intimate of recent Malick (as well as the most relentlessly sad), and perhaps suggests the results of his cinema if its scope is hampered by budget and the limitations of the high productivity he now seems to have.”
And Fernando F. Croce replies, also in the Notebook: “It’s a continuous search for the ineffable (‘I write in water what I dare not say’) that alternates between the banal and the sublime, irritation and rapture, unfurnished homes and cathedral skies.”
“You might say that plot was never Malick’s strong suit, but there’s a difference between archetypal and underwritten; like The New World and The Tree of Life, To the Wonder suggests there’s no narrative hole Malick can’t plug with a shot of a wheat field or a snatch of Wagner,” writes Time Out Chicago‘s Ben Kenigsberg.
Update, 9/23: Blake Williams briefly argues that “there is an entire facet of Malick’s heavily-scorned new film that is being ignored by the critic-verse that seems to be the key to appreciating it, and that facet is a scathing indictment of American suburbia.”
Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper: “It’s fascinating to see Malick finally admit evidence of the modern-day world into the frame, be it the nighttime glow of a Sonic Burger or Affleck’s job checking exurban housing developments for environmental contaminants, but it’s still hard to imagine his aesthetic making room for a cell phone or a laptop.”
Venice and Toronto 2012: a guide to the coverage of the coverage. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily on Twitter and/or the RSS feed. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at fandor.com/daily.