This review was originally published on September 11, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
Let's open with the positive. In "To the Wonder," Javier Bardem is a Catholic priest in a flat American town. He sermonizes to a mostly empty church, visits the poor, elderly and imprisoned, and he communes, in Spanish voice-over, with God. Every minute he is on screen, it is mesmerizing — the music swells, the camera arcs, looming above and lurking behind. Unfortunately, he makes up only 10% of the movie. The remainder, and it pains me to say this, is too distant to make a true connection.
"To the Wonder," of course, is the newest film from Terrence Malick, a man who started his career as a filmmaker and is now in the sui generis business of being Terrence Malick. His directorial output is important (and limited) enough for a brief rundown:
"Badlands" (1973) is a fun Bonnie and Clyde-esque trip with young Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. It has notes of visual splendor and interesting use of voice-over, music and sound design.
"Days of Heaven" (1978) is a remarkable Depression-era love triangle that, on paper, seems like a regular movie but amazes with painterly images, triumphant music and a parallel voice-over track that is a work of art unto itself. A pinnacle of 1970s "New Hollywood."
From 1978 to 1998, Malick spends 20 years in hiding, cementing a reputation as the greatest director we will never hear from again.
"The Thin Red Line" (1998) is superficially compared to "Saving Private Ryan," but it's the first of Malick Mach 2, a collage of poetry, nature, floating points-of-view and associative imagery. It's the world's first beautiful film about war and an absolute masterpiece.
"The New World" (2005) — ditto all the above but also spins the historical drama on its head, shattering expectations for the genre. Three different cuts of the movie are floating around out there because Malick is becoming a protected genius. He doesn't give interviews, he doesn't appear on DVD extras, his shooting style is described as controlled chaos — a 360 degree outdoor location with cameras constantly rolling.
"The Tree of Life" (2011) is the closest equivalent to Marcel Proust put to film. It is ostensibly about a remembered childhood, but it also throws in the birth of the Universe, just to stay ambitious. Most film critics still haven't stopped dropping dead from this movie.
Suddenly, aged 68, Terrence Malick is producing work at an exponential rate. With three other projects at varying stages of development, he brings "To the Wonder" to the festival circuit, and, surprise. It isn't very good.
Some may argue that Malick's singular style protects him from charges like "good movie" or "bad movie." It is art! I agree with that, but only to a point. Know this: I've seen every Malick film in a theater (the early ones at museums/rep houses) and I've never once before checked my watch. Scratch that — I did check my watch, in the hopes that it would show plenty of time left for the magic to continue. For "To the Wonder," this was not the case.
Underneath it all, "To the Wonder" is a treatise on the transience of love and, God knows, a filmmaker like Malick is absolutely up to the task of making it work. Sadly, what's up there on the screen is just so opaque that one is forced to simply react to its surface. And the surface is fundamentally dull.
I suppose we're to take Ben Affleck as the film's protagonist, though an argument can be made that it is Olga Kurylenko, or, perhaps, that there is no protagonist. Either way, the film begins with Affleck and Kurylenko having a gay old time in France, twirling through the Tuileries Gardens or sloshing through the clay at Mont Saint-Michel. Kurylenko has a ten-year-old daughter and, with a snap, they both come to America with Affleck.
Affleck lives in a community of new, perennially empty homes chomping up and fencing in the wild grass splendor of the American plains. There are some older buildings in town, but by and large, this is a world of empty cream walls and static-charging carpeting.
We get it: it ain't Europe. Soon, the relationship fizzles, but don't look for anything explicit to tell you why. At first, Kurylenko is happily twirling on the lawn and making dinner, but then she's frowning and pouting. (She's still twirling. Lots of twirling in "To the Wonder." In fact, "To the Wonder" has more per capita twirling than any movie ever made.)
The mystery of love's shelf life is meant to be universal, but there are plenty of people who manage to be happy no matter where they are. It's not like Affleck is suddenly less affectionate as the film marches on. He's an emotionless loaf of bread from beginning to end. There's a middle section where Kurylenko goes back to France, and Rachel McAdams shows up to twirl for a while. It's nice, because while Kurylenko is beautiful, it's fun to see a blonde twirl, too.
Okay, I'm being glib, but you'll have to forgive me. You don't know what I've been through. I'd smack anyone in the face with my copy of Paul Schrader's "Transcendental Style in Film" if they talked this way about Malick's other films, but those movies have the goods. "To the Wonder" is distinctly lacking in oomph and, without an emotional connection, without anything interesting happening on the screen, the beauty can only take you so far before the endeavor falls like a house of cards.
I conclude with the unenviable task of giving "To the Wonder" a letter grade. I wish I could give it a "Q," because this movie exists far outside of the normal parameters of critique [ed. note: This review was written before Film.com switched to a numerical rating system]. It is so, so gorgeous, and there are instances that soar (and not solely Bardem's), but it doesn't add up. I'm certainly glad I saw the film, and I recommend it for fans or for anyone who'll get a buzz out of hearing a line like, "What is this love that loves us" spoken in French. If you aren't in that group, well, you have been warned.
SCORE: 7.5 / 10