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April 15, 2013


To the Wonder Navel Gazing Through a Telescope: 
Terrence Malick’s Failed Experiment Leaves a Black Eye

Terrence Malick still hasn’t made a remarkable film since 1978. That was the year he made “Days of Heaven” — not to be confused with “Gates of Heaven.” Although the “Heaven” movies do have something in common: they ruined their respective filmmakers’ careers — Michael Cimino made more of a splash because he took United Artists down with him. Malick went overboard by shooting most of the movie during the gloaming — a 25-minute period at dusk that Malick referred to as the “magic hour.” He then spent three years editing it.

“To the Wonder” is a shorthand cinematic poem told with such slightness that there is nothing for an audience to identify with beyond some vague apologia about God’s ability to put human beings through as much heartbreak as they can endure. It’s an airy cinematic sermon that mumbles for two-hours. Atheists will be bored; believers will scratch their heads. Pretentious film critics will out themselves.

Malick has made an experimental movie that fails because it’s all agenda and no substance. There’s so little character development or narrative cohesion that the viewer feels alienated through the whole experience. The filmmaker’s oh-so-deep philosophical musings, as tinged with religious inflections, are oddly apolitical. Malick’s micro-meta bubble is small and foggy. It’s a fundamental rule of screenwriting to never preach to your audience. Terrence Malick breaks that rule with impunity.


In Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) courts Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a sensuous Ukrainian woman with a ten-year-old daughter named Tatiana. The Eiffel Tower, the gardens at Versailles, and Mont Saint-Michele make for plenty of postcard-perfect compositions via Malick’s handheld camera. Dialogue is sparse, very sparse. Malick flits between indulgent shots of streaming sunlight on suburban landscapes to fill in copious narrative blanks in his script.

The would-be family moves to Neil’s hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma to reside in a cloistered suburban housing community bereft of personality. Neil is giving Marina a relationship trial run. Is she marriage material? Tatiana certainly thinks so. However, Marina’s mood swings make her seem bi-polar in a “Betty Blue” kind of way. Languorous episodes of romantic harmony give way to ugly, if muted, outbursts of anger. A devil’s advocate vantage point could view Malick’s film as an unintended observation on the toxic effect of American suburbia on romantic relationships. But that would be a stretch.


Javier Bardem creeps around the story as Father Quintana, a priest who worries over the limits of his ability to help the impoverished and ailing Americans who live around him. During a sermon, he tells his parish, that a husband “does not find” his wife “lovely.” Rather, “he makes her lovely.”

Neil isn’t really that into Marina. Without explanation he sends she and Tatiana packing. The unreliable protagonist briefly dallies with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old romance from childhood. Like Marina, Jane is needy to a fault.


A romantic reversal occurs. Marina abandons Tatiana to her father’s family and returns to Neil in Oklahoma to start their lives together. Domestic troubles percolate and boil over around moot narrative details. I suppose, if you’re a believer, “To the Wonder” will bring you closer to God in as much as it will push you two-hours closer to your ultimate demise. Personally, I’d rather watch Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) or “Days of Heaven.” There was a time when Terrence Malick made incredible movies. Those days are gone.

Rated R. 112 mins. (D) (One Star – out of five/no halves)

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