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To the Wonder (2013)

April 18, 2013

VERDICT:
4/10 Broken Commitments

So this is how the masses felt after The Tree of Life.

To the Wonder is about an American man and a Ukrainian woman who fall for each other at Mont St. Michel, so much so that he asks her and her daughter to live with him in back in the States. So they move to Oklahoma where life is a lot more boring, and before long, they find themselves falling out of love. She and her daughter eventually move back to Europe while he begins developing feelings for a local woman he once knew in his youth. Next thing you know, the Ukrainian gal is moving back in as they try to give it another go. All the while, a local priest tries to rekindle his own relationship with God, and that ain’t going too well either.

Sounds like a Terrence Malick movie alright.

Folks, I don’t even really talk about it in anymore, but believe it or not, I liked The Tree of Life. Once upon a time I would have said that I really liked it, but alas, it just never got any easier to defend those goddamn velociraptors. And while everyone is more than entitled to their own opinions on the matter, the fact remains that I’m still quite fond of it even after all we’ve been through. It’s still difficult to explain why I like it without alienating myself and sounding like a full-blown movie snob in the process, but what sticks with me most are all the ways in which it was so wonderfully different from anything else I’d seen in recent memory. It managed to accomplish something that was both larger than life and universally human, and it was special, dinosaurs and all.

And while the upside of To the Wonder is that there isn’t a prehistoric predator in sight, the downside of To the Wonder is that it has the same lofty ambitions. As you’ve likely gathered from the Verdict up there, the results aren’t quite as successful.

Whereas Malick’s last movie was about, well, everything really, the main focus of To the Wonder is that of love and all its mysteries. Then again, don’t quote me on that, because no two viewings are alike when it comes to these Malick pictures. Either way, anyone who’s ever been in or out of love can tell you that this sucker has no shortage of material to work with.

After all, love is a pretty mysterious thing, one that even history’s greatest wordsmiths haven’t been able to describe with true clarity. And when this story starts out, love is all around, love is contagious, love is simple. It’ll make you uproot your life without thinking twice, it turns men in fathers, girls into daughters, lovers into something more. It’s undeniable, it’s uncontrollable and the thought of it disappearing never crosses your little mind. This is how it always starts.

Unfortunately, the good times don’t last for long in this story as much of it is spent meditating on the bitter side of what was initially so sweet. What starts as a story about “Yes!” eventually becomes a story about “Why?” As in, “Why do people stay in failing relationships?” and “Why do people fall out of love?” The double-edged sword of these questions is that as relatable and timeless as they are, they are questions without answers.

And I don’t mind that, as I wasn’t expecting Terrence Malick to suddenly drop the knowledge that our bleeding hearts have been searching for all this time. After all, it’s only natural to want to explore that which can’t be explained and it probably would have been worse if it were answers that he started providing. But what I do mind is how he goes about his exploration, painting us a constant reminder that the J. Geils Band was right all along, that love does in fact stink.

If you haven’t experienced it in some form or fashion, count your blessings, because watching someone you care about fall for someone that doesn’t deserve them is just torture. All you want to do is shake ’em around and hope they come to such an obvious realization, but since you don’t want to risk losing a friendship, you bite your tongue and hope for the best. Oh yes, it sucks. But even if you haven’t experience it on a personal level, it can still be awfully infuriating. Take Chris Brown and Rihanna for instance. These are two people I ordinarily wouldn’t care less about, but the fact that they’re still together after what he did to her is enough to make my blood boil. Not to say that the relationship between the two leads in To the Wonder is at all comparable to that of the world’s worst role models since Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, it’s just that it sucks to watch.

By and large, this is what To the Wonder is driven by: me, helplessly watching on as two people I didn’t care about kept leaving and returning to their increasingly toxic relationship. Not only that, but I also got to helplessly watch on as a priest tried to salvage his relationship with God in light of the pain and suffering of those around him. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t get any answers either. I get the connection between the stories and it’s an inspired (albeit inconsequential) one at that, I just wish there had been more substance to support the style.

As the trailer will show you, not only does To the Wonder deal with a lot of the same grandiose themes as The Tree of Life, but it also bears an awfully strong visual resemblance. Same sweeping cinematography, lots of similar imagery and there are times when it’s enough to make you drool on your shirt. The one big difference is that The Tree of Life was more about the man behind the camera than the people in front of it. That much was clear from the start and made it that much easier to forgive the lack of character development along the way. To the Wonder, on the other hand, is all about the people in front of the camera, only the formula hasn’t adjusted. As a result, I felt like I barely got to know these people, and even after witnessing their ups and downs with one another, they were still strangers to me by the end of two hours.

I don’t need to know everything that’s going through their minds, I don’t need to know anything about them for that matter. However, it would have been nice to see them portrayed as real people going through real crises rather than placeholders with voice-overs. You look at something like Badlands, a movie that revolved around two utterly fascinating characters and features some of the most striking visuals you’ll ever see, and I can’t help but long for more. It’s just hard to appreciate the way Malick approached this movie as it only serves to detract from what could have been an achingly human story. As a result, it left me bored, frustrated and frequently uninterested, and that’s just bad business.

I just wish I had felt something for these characters, even if that something was a firm disliking towards them. Make my blood boil, make me want to scream, because the last thing I ever want to feel in a story like this is numb. But so it goes.

Oh, well.

By now it should go without saying that if you didn’t dig The Tree of Life, you won’t be digging To the Wonder. But as someone who digs the hell out of Terrence Malick, it was disappointing to discover something so terribly muddled and repetitive beneath such an absolutely gorgeous surface. Bully to Malick for aiming high, bully to Malick for doing his thing, but if there’s anything at all that I’ve taken away, it’s that there’s something to be said for getting back to basics. Love may stink, love may be mystery, but regardless of what it is, it should at least feel alive.

Can’t win ’em all, Terry. Can’t win ’em all.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2013 2:27 am

    Good review! I personally hated this film. Visually it is beautiful and luckily there are no dinosaurs but it is like a mental masturbation for me. This was the second film by Malick I watched and didn’t like so I think I just have to accept the fact that his movies are not for me. 🙂

    • April 18, 2013 8:44 am

      Haha. Thanks, man! The hatred is justified and I wouldn’t knock anyone for thinking likewise. I’m guessing the other movie was Tree of Life? Well if there’s any Malick movie that’ll make you a believer, it’s Badlands, and if you’re ever up for it, I highly recommend that you give it a go. That one’s something else.

  2. Larry Kreger permalink
    April 18, 2013 5:53 am

    Uh oh, sounds like another less than brilliant director getting in over his head dealing with Big Questions ( people in show biz are never happy with who they ARE, they are all like a bunch of borscht belt comedians –if you are old enough to know what that refers to- whose secret burning desire is to play King Lear….)
    Also sounds to me like you are being very merciful with your review

    • April 18, 2013 1:19 pm

      Haha. Yeah, Malick probably should have gone with a different approach on this one, but hey, at least it’s pretty. Going out a limb here and guessing it’s not your kinda thing though.

  3. April 18, 2013 7:05 am

    I felt exactly the same way about Tree of Life as you. I love Malick’s visionary ambitions …not sure I’ll race out to see this one, but I sure had fun reading your excellent review.

    • April 18, 2013 8:47 am

      Haha. Well thanks! It’s no Tree of Life alright, but if you dig Malick, don’t let me be the guy who convinces you not to see this. Just don’t shoot the messenger if you hate it!

  4. Anna Imof permalink
    April 29, 2013 9:00 am

    What sucks about this film is not only the fact that it sucks (as a film — it would work as a detergent commercial), but the fact that it really really takes away from the magic of The Tree of Life. Seeing that Malick is obviously on a roll (like he wants to catch up, almost) makes me think that all of the movies he will do in the next few years will be shot and told that way, which will make them almost formulaic and boring. I wouldn’t mind so much if it didn’t kinda sorta ruin The Tree of Life, which I thought was a masterpiece, but if he’s gonna follow that with five mini-trees then he’s kinda diarrheaing all over that and it becomes all really indulgent and self-absorbed, which I think is a pity. Seems like he’s rushing and letting enough time pass to gain some distance from a former project. Loved Affleck though, he’s really growing on me. Such a great energy.

    • April 29, 2013 9:14 am

      Detergent commercial, couldn’t have said it better myself.

      I’m having a hard time knocking Malick for his twirly, steam-of-consciousness approach in this, if only because it worked so well in Tree of Life and it still looks gorgeous for what it is. Still, I can’t help but side with you either. Really took away from the things in this movie that actually mattered, as in the characters. Self-indulgent is the word alright.

      Still, Affleck is aces these days and I have hope that Malick will get his act back together in due time. And Tree of Life still rocks. Please continue to wave that banner with pride, girl.

  5. Anna Imof permalink
    April 29, 2013 9:46 am

    I’m not knocking him (just yet), but if his next films starts with twirling I just might.

  6. May 20, 2013 10:25 am

    Seeing the reviews of this, and having not seen Tree of Life until this past weekend, I’ve been reluctant to see To the Wonder. Suffice it to say that I’m no more or less confused. I’ve always been so torn with Malick. His movies often have that art-house visual quality that sometimes seem to warrant a script “Fin” at the end. Granted, I haven’t seen Badlands so I can’t judge anything of his really before 1998. I couldn’t sit through The Thin Red Line, but that was also coming off the heels of Saving Private Ryan and I was 12, so maybe time will have changed my sentiments with another viewing. However, I liked The New World. Didn’t love it at the time I saw it, but again, age might make me more appreciative.

    With Tree of Life, I feel as if Malick was trying to be too 2001 Kubrick-ian with his whole birth and end of the Earth/universe stuff. I mean, I understood his whole idea of juxtaposing the universally grand with the infinitesimally small, but they felt so disconnected that there was no way to cleanly tie them together. I remember Sean Penn saying how much he loved the beauty of the script, but that it just couldn’t translate to the screen with the same depth and power. I loved almost everything on the human scale, but once it left the time frame and the atmosphere, I feel it got lost. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the cinematography. I like Lubezki, and I feel he got shafted out of an Oscar for Children of Men, and he did a masterful job with Tree of Life and I’m sure with To the Wonder as well. But all those sweeping wide-angle shots can’t inject soul into the characters. It only gives the fleeting appearance of such a thing…

    • May 20, 2013 1:35 pm

      Rob! Good to hear from ya’, you’ve been missed around these parts!

      First off, yeah, Malick ain’t for everyone. As much as I adore him at times, he’s not always for me either. Between this and The New World, you can’t win ’em all. Haven’t seen Thin Red Line since high school, but if you really want to see him at his best, you really do need to see Badlands. That thing’s effing incredible, easily his most accessible movie to boot.

      We could go back and forth about Tree of Life ’til we’re blue in the face, but I hear where you’re coming from. I dug it quite a bit, but it’s a hard movie to defend, one of the reasons being how scattered it is. Glad you dig Lubezki too, that Oscar bullshit with Children of Men is one of the biggest cinematic crimes of the new millennium. I agree though, not sure how well it works when Malick’s the one directing things.

      Point is: if you’re looking to jump on the Malick bandwagon, don’t start here. Check out Badlands, drink the Kool-Aid, then check this out if you’re feeling adventurous. Whatever you do, keep me posted, homey. This dude is one hell of a talking point.

      Also, I take it you’re sufficiently jazzed for Elysium?

      • May 20, 2013 1:51 pm

        Oh yes, most sufficiently. It’ll be nice to see Blomkamp return and I hope he’ll keep things golden with the larger budget and A-listers. I decided to pass on Oblivion, I figured I’ll catch it on TV instead of laying out $12+ for it. Frankly I’m more excited for Elysium than I was for Into Darkness, though that’s high up on my list too (hell, I’d take that any day over the prospect of shelling out for Gatsby, that’s for sure).

      • May 20, 2013 2:01 pm

        Hahaha. Yeah, continue to pass on Oblivion, going to see Star Trek tonight though.

        Actually saw Gatsby over the weekend and prepping a review for this week. Something tells me the comments will be interesting.

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