Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” is a film that may go down in history, but not because it’s another masterpiece from the man who made “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line” and “The Tree of Life.”
Instead, “To the Wonder,” which opens in a limited release and on VOD on Friday, seems likely to be known because it was the last movie Roger Ebert ever reviewed, in a kind and thoughtful notice that was posted two days after Ebert’s death last week.
But as a movie itself, the film seems unlikely to end up a Best Picture nominee the way “The Tree of Life” was two years ago, and unlikely to earn the $36.4 million of Malick’s top-grossing film, “The Thin Red Line.”
Instead, it seems to be raising an impertinent question directed at one of the most acclaimed, cerebral filmmakers of our time: Is it possible for a Terrence Malick movie to be too Terrence Malicky?
“There will be many who find ‘To the Wonder’ elusive and too effervescent,” Ebert wrote. “They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”
“To the Wonder” has all the Malick trademarks: gorgeous cinematography illuminating windswept plains of swaying grass, conversational fragments that only hint at what people are really talking about, and philosophical voiceovers that play while the characters walk around and cast soulful glances at the ground.
In “The Tree of Life,” where those elements were in the service of a (relatively) coherent story, it worked brilliantly well. (Like Ebert, I thought it was the best film of 2011.) But “To the Wonder” is at times magnificent, at times infuriating, and often magnificently infuriating.
It was booed when it premiered at last fall’s Venice Film Festival, and received a wildly mixed reaction at the Toronto Film Festival a few days later.
After seeing it there, I called it “a loose memory fantasia that dispenses with extraneous things like dialogue and narrative,” and said it took place in “Malick-land, a parallel universe … people walk slowly and gaze soulfully and never speak to each other when they can convey their thoughts in voiceover instead.”
It also, in typical Malick fashion, leaves actors on the cutting room floor. Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen all went to Oklahoma, filmed scenes, and then vanished in the edit. Ben Affleck, the male lead, reportedly shot hours of dialogue, including a number of fiery arguments with Olga Kurylenko, ended up with fewer than two dozen lines in the entire movie.
“I don’t have any idea what it’s going to be like," Javier Bardem told TheWrap after shooting his role. "I might be in it, or I might not be in it. Who knows?” As it turned out, Bardem (below) has more lines than Affleck, though significantly less screen time.
Actors always speak rapturously of their experience making a Malick movie – “He is the greatest teacher I have ever known and will ever know,” Chastain told TheWrap – but when Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams appeared for a post-screening Q&A in Toronto, they both seemed surprised by what they’d seen.
"He could make a much darker movie from everything in his possession," said Kurylenko, whose character was more destructive and emotionally disturbed in scenes, many of them arguments with Affleck’s character, that were shot but not used. "There's a completely different story out there, too."
As somebody who has loved most of Malick’s films, I found “To the Wonder” gorgeous and haunting but also dissatisfying. And I had to wonder if the Malick style had reached a point of diminishing returns.
The collected critics at Rotten Tomatoes have the film at a 41 percent positive rating, by far the lowest of any Malick movie. (“Badlands” is the highest at 98 percent positive, followed by “Days of Heaven” at 94 percent, “The Tree of Life” at 84 percent and “The Thin Red Line” at 78 percent.)
Some critics have responded, from Ebert to Time’s Richard Corliss, who admiringly called it “the most formally radical post-narrative American film ever to be released.”
But most have found the ultra-Malicky style a bit much this time around; NPR’s Linda Holmes admitted that it was beautiful, and then added, “unfortunately … it is in other respects insufferable.”
And in New York magazine, David Edelstein summed up an uncomfortable consensus: “‘To the Wonder’ feels like generalized woo-woo – and self-parody.”
After spending an average of nine-and-a-half years between his first five movies, maybe Malick wasn’t meant to release a new film only two years after his last one. (But he shot two more movies back-to-back last year.)
Still, it’s dangerous to act as if you’ve figured out Terrence Malick. While he was shooting "To the Wonder," Ben Affleck gave what might stand as a pointed warning to those of us inclined to dismiss “To the Wonder” and its director:
“Most of us mortal people adhere to the conventional wisdom that we have to do it this way, because that’s how everybody does it,” said Affleck in an interview with TheWrap while he was promoting “The Town” and had yet to make “Argo.”
“So we all plod dutifully along obeying that decree from the ether. And Terry is a guy who challenges that, and continues to redefine how he wants to make his movies and what he’s doing. It’s an incredible gift to listen in to his creative process.”