Movie Review: To the Wonder- Terrence Malick’s Superficial Contemplation on Love has Beautiful Visuals but Gets Disconnected from its Themes

wonder_2488480bCinema as an artistic medium can be a profound tool in exposing or contemplating sophisticated ideas in a depth that often times can’t be fully explored in paintings, sculptures, or still photographs. However, just like all types of art cinema can teeter on the thin line between interpretive vagueness and vacuous inertness sometimes transforming noble philosophical meditation into an arbitrary exercise in self-indulgence. Poetic filmmaker Terrence Malick’s latest ponderous mess To the Wonder follows the latter description of vacant filmmaking that ultimately is a noble but failed attempt to utilize his distinct cinematic language to connect visual beauty with ultimate truth. Instead of focusing his transcendent eye on the cosmos as he did in Tree of Life or with the human condition of war in The Thin Red Line Malick has chosen the subject of love and all of its complexities served with somber imagery, philosophical trivialities, and a tonal seriousness that enters the realm of parody. So languid is the pace of To the Wonder that it becomes a true test of endurance as you venture through all of its frustrating emptiness and surprisingly shallow reflections. There is an intense beauty to all of Malick’s incandescent cinematic artwork and visually To the Wonder stays true with his usual photographic elegance rivaling his previous epitome of beauty in Days of Heaven. Despite Malick’s well-intentioned unconventional style, which is constantly refreshing compared to other thoughtless movies, there is an obvious limitation evidenced in this latest philosophical reflection on love, truth, beauty, and God. Grandiose ideas require an equally tactful approach but there simply isn’t a devout focus in To the Wonder disconnecting us from the characters, the practically non-existent plot, and ultimately the thematic intentions of the film as a whole. While art can often times transcend our perspective on a multitude of subjects it can sometimes regress into nothing more than an experimental exercise of hollow unearthing.

Experimental films sometimes elude the orthodox dedication to straightforward plots and Malick consistently takes advantage of how cinema can stretch time, space, and perspective. To the Wonder takes focus on a tumultuous relationship between an all giving single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) who is resistant to take the dedicated plunge of commitment. Through the euphoric highs and challenging lows of their relationship Malick drifts in and out of different character’s inner monologue perspectives attempting to bridge the concept of relationship vows with a an overarching theme of spiritual connection. What begins as an inviting self-assured ethereal experience of eloquent visuals begins to decompose and reveal an incredibly shallow fakeness to the characters in the story and the experiences on the screen. Having characters spouting pseudo-poetry to give the illusion of sophistication cannot distract from the lack of thoughtfulness in plot and character throughout the torturously slow To the Wonder. Another experimental aspect of his film is the stretching of time as years separate different scenes and with it the time lapse of the film stretches with them. The latter infinitely more laborious half of the film suggests that Malick wasn’t even remotely concerned with connecting his generalized reflections on love with an audience at large. To the Wonder has the pretentious atmosphere and disjointed presentation that might visually trick some people into believing it has a unique contemplative undercurrent but at the heart of its pseudo-philosophical triteness there is nothing more than visual beauty mixed with shallow thought. This is Malick attempting to create visual poetry out of casual filmmaking without taking the proper time to structure his obvious curiosity in immense ideas relating to the human and spiritual experience as he has done with most of his films in the past.

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Though To the Wonder loses itself in satirically phrased poetic queries there is a magnificent expressiveness to the visual tapestry that Malick creates with collaborative cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki has been Malick’s cinematographer for the last three of his films and while Lubezki’s eloquent camerawork isn’t as poignant or realized as it was for the Tree of Life there is still a stunning clarity to the various shots juxtaposing people with nature. But splendor of filmic qualities should have an equally gripping connectivity to the thematic work and that’s just simply non-existent here with Malick’s non-existent plot. Everything is overstated to the point of satire, either in the emoting of the actors as affection is shown with purely exaggerated movements as if it were a silent film or the camera spins continuously disorienting the experience. The beauty only keeps us engaged for so long until the film’s simplistic ponderings begin to land as flat as some of the on screen performances. Laborious pacing coupled with incoherent image after image disconnects us further from the well-intentioned reflection on love and loss. Love is indeed a concept that can be shown purely through visual photography and yet with all of the intriguing cinematography there was never a truly profound capturing of that exceptionally large idea. Perhaps it was the antipathetic characters or the disconnected cinematic style or the lack of depth in the plot but nothing about To the Wonder ever really leaves you with that sense of wonder or awe required of an artistic experience. As the film progresses with its overly stated and overly serious display it unfortunately becomes unintentionally comical turning into what could be deemed a parody of a Terrence Malick film. This misguided and unfocused reflection was weighted down from the beginning due to lack of insight on the thematic topic and it clearly suffers on all fronts, especially the acting side.

There isn’t a great deal of traditional acting that takes place in To the Wonder or any Terrence Malick film for that matter. What’s is usually required of the actors is an ability to have either a look of subdued gloominess or untamed jubilation depending on the tone of the scene at hand, which means there is practically no middle ground in the emotional range expected in a Malick picture. The beautiful Olga Kurylenko attempts to tap into her loneliness as the single mother Marina as she repeats various actions such as spinning, grabbing hands, or just looking incredibly forlorn, either in the back of a church or wandering the streets of a city. Her interactions with Ben Affleck as the agnostic Neill are relatable enough but their relationship and all of their emotions never seem to land with the audience most likely due to Malick’s disengaged approach to his subject matter. When contemplating the cosmos or reflecting on war a disconnect style might be required to show all sorts of perspectives but it really did a disservice in To the Wonder because the concept of love is all about connection. Ben Affleck doesn’t do much of anything, either in dialogue, action, or emotional range so it’s difficult to immediately blame him for such a laughable zombie like performance. A true waste of talent though was using Javier Bardem as priest desperately trying to relate the suffering of the world with the suffering of Christ but seems as disconnected from his words and actions as he meanders about on screen with little to no purpose. These performances are not performances in the traditional sense because Malick wants them to be ponderous props in his experimental visual exercise. While there is nothing wrong with purely visual storytelling that just means that the interconnected images need to land with a thematic focus that is clearly missing in Malick’s approach with this current film.

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Fans of auteur Terrence Malick’s transcendent philosophical filmmaking might find a decent amount of visual eloquence to latch onto in order to appreciate To the Wonder, but there is no denying that it’s his least engaged, thought provoking, and cohesive work to date. Cinema as art can forego conventional approaches but only if that chosen style can elucidate the intended theme, which this film doesn’t do in the slightest. A combination of frustrating pacing, simplistic philosophy, and a lack of plot create an almost unbearable cinema experience where the beauty of the image can only do so much to counteract the vacuous contemplations. If you exit the theater wondering if you perhaps missed what Malick’s intentions were just know that there is truly nothing to understand because his reflection on love and his anxiety towards the temporary state of our relationships never lands and instead lingers. To the Wonder is contradictory in the sense that it’s a fascinating visual journey alongside an unbearably dull look at a couple that is as antagonistic as they are interesting. Malick might be perfecting his visual grace and becoming a truly transcendent filmmaker but in doing so he is leaving us behind with very little connection to being able to relate to us what he truly does see beyond the lens. To the Wonder could be considered an example of cinema as art but it isn’t a canvas to be interpreted because all it becomes is an empty practice of creative hedonism.

Grade: C

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