- To the Wonder (movie 2012) review: Neither the performers nor the behind-the-camera talent can disguise the fact that Terrence Malick’s psychological drama is a major disappointment in terms of both cinematic storytelling and philosophical reflection.
To the Wonder (movie 2012) review: Though filled with lyrical images and sounds, Terrence Malick’s latest is an unsatisfying, borderline misogynistic drama
Writer-director Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder is built from shattered hearts, broken relationships, and unanswered prayers, all better “long since forgotten” rather than pondered on film, yet again, in this lyrical but redundant and ultimately navel-gazing tone poem.
As truth, To the Wonder is so sad it’s almost unbearable. As cinema, it’s just unbearable.
Focus on the ‘male disposition’
In To the Wonder, Malick’s sixth directorial effort since 1973’s Badlands (though his second in the last two years), ever present are the filmmaker’s ongoing themes, which can roughly be reduced to several notions about Man’s struggle with his natural disposition – as opposed to one more suitable to a civilized world where a god might be watching.
Man’s disposition, by Malick’s measure, is a combination of surly ambivalence about love (however much desired) and a yearning for oneness with nature, if not God himself, despite the fact that humans abuse and/or doubt all of the above.
In this instance, Malick is specifically concerned with the male disposition. Whereas in The Tree of Life God is mostly conceptual and aligned with a female presence, in To the Wonder God and his agent, represented by a conflicted priest played by Javier Bardem, are definitely masculine entities.
Indeed, women in To The Wonder are treated with something that approaches disdain. The adult ones are infantilized and reduced to clinging, simpering waifs. They are the subject of men’s desire and the fodder for men’s decisions about their own lives.
When Neil (Ben Affleck, replacing Christian Bale) meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) – a Ukrainian woman with a ten-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), living in Paris – they play out a fairy-tale relationship full of long walks along the Seine and lovemaking in dewy fields. All the while, Marina and the little girl fall ever more in love with the handsome American who just might save them.
Yet when Neil asks Marina and Tatiana to go to Oklahoma with him to continue their fairy tale, the very fact that he asks and she accepts feels ridiculous. What mother of a ten-year-old daughter, however smitten, would do this?
A foolish one. A childish one. A bad one. And this is the least of Marina’s juvenile decisions.
Jane (Rachel McAdams), the second woman subjected to Neil’s indeliberate advances, is an old flame. She quivers at his brooding side-on glances and behaves just as absurdly, if in a slightly less infantile manner, as Marina.
As for To the Wonder’s third female, Tatiana, she follows her mother both physically and emotionally, eventually becoming the actual victim of Neil’s existential whims. In fact, Tatiana suffers the sort of emotional abuse that only adults who fancy themselves “parent material” are capable of inflicting. That either Neil or Marina would be allowed anywhere near a child is the most dramatically arresting notion in the whole movie.
In short, To the Wonder is belittling of women and abusive to little girls while remaining deeply concerned with male existential angst.
The ‘human condition’ should encompass women
True, the artist’s concern is the artist’s concern and cannot be dictated. However, from a cinematic, narrative, and emotional standpoint, Terrence Malick’s complete lack of interest in developing a single complex female character in a film ostensibly concerned with the human condition is deflating to the filmmaker’s status as a seminal interpreter of that condition – at least in the eyes of this critic.
Besides the inequity between the sexes, To the Wonder suffers from narrative inanities, many of which are verbalized in rambling voice-overs about everyday human failures. They are meant to be poetic, which they are, and revelatory, which they are not.
Love’s end is not a revelation. Our struggle with our environment is not new. Our lingering doubts about our deepest beliefs are ancient and experienced by everyone. These concepts are ordinary, and while they are fodder for cinema, in To the Wonder they feel like placeholders for a story that Malick, with his penchant for the philosophical, is not inclined to tell. And so he doesn’t.
Strong thematic line through the decades
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life is the obvious seed stock for To the Wonder. These two Terrence Malick movies are fraternal twins both thematically and stylistically – though, admittedly, they are also related to the filmmaker’s entire canon.
From his iconic efforts Badlands and Days of Heaven (1978), Malick’s underlying interests have always carried through. These include what one might call a “wonder” at all things not created by Man, and therefore likely created by God, in addition to a contemplation of those things created by Man himself, among them disharmony with nature and both external and internal conflicts.
The New World (2005), for instance, presents few – if any – historical facts, but the film displays wonderment at nature while pondering about the clash of cultures that led to the creation of the “New World” – which, needless to say, wasn’t new at all.
Another example: In Malick’s epic adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel The Thin Red Line (1998), indigenous elements press on even as Man (and only men) destroy each other on shores and in jungles that will eventually swallow them all – and forget they ever existed. (The Thin Red Line is a brilliant film; the best from its period. Better and more important than Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.)
Out of touch filmmaker
In To the Wonder, these notions are once again presented. But for a film set in the present – one that treats women as though they’ve escaped from a Mad Men episode – Terrence Malick’s ideas feel at worst chauvinistic and at best the mark of a director woefully out of touch with modern sensibilities.
To that end, composer Hanan Townshend’s sweeping strings, swirling ever heavenward, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s floating camera, with its side-on glimpses and “deliberately unintentional” lens flares, cannot obscure the fact that To the Wonder is less about an existential crisis of faith than it is about Man’s lust, brooding, regret, and fear of dying alone in a godless universe.
Nothing new about any of that either.
To the Wonder (movie 2012) cast & crew
Direction & Screenplay: Terrence Malick.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chiline, Romina Mondello.
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki.
Film Editing: A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, and Mark Yoshikawa.
Music: Hanan Townshend.
Production Design: Jack Fisk.
Producers: Sarah Green & Nicolas Gonda.
Production Companies: Brothers K Productions | FilmNation Entertainment.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures.
Running Time: 112 min.
Country: United States.
Note: The performances of To the Wonder movie cast members Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Jessica Chastain, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper ended up on the cutting-room floor.
“To the Wonder (Movie 2012): Huge Terrence Malick Disappointment” notes
To the Wonder movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Javier Bardem, Ben Affleck, and Rachel McAdams To the Wonder movie images: Magnolia Pictures.
“To the Wonder (Movie 2012): Huge Terrence Malick Disappointment” last updated in April 2023.