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The Independent Critic

Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams
Terence Malick
Rated R
112 Mins.
Magnolia Pictures
Four featurettes

 "To The Wonder" Requires Absolute Surrender 
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There will be those of you who will hate, absolutely despise, To the Wonder.

You may even find yourself frothing like the incomprehensible Rex Reed, a dinosaur of a film critic who hasn't written a meaningful film review in years and who seems to exist only to create tabloid worthy faux journalism. You may find yourself lamenting that the man who created such films as The Thin Red Line, Badlands and Days of Heaven has suddenly become the creator of some of the most spiritually and emotionally relevant films of recent years such as The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder.

Much has been made in the press about Terrence Malick's seemingly unfathomable decision to cut entirely out of this motion picture such top Hollywood talent as Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen. Given the dynamics of networking within Hollywood this is a bold move, but Terrence Malick is a bold filmmaker with an almost unrivaled sense of artistic integrity. You may not appreciate Malick's vision, but to deny that he has a vision is ludicrous. At his absolute worst, Malick is a director with chaotic artistic sensibilities that may or may not make sense. At his best? He's a cinematic deity of sorts.

To the Wonder is one of Malick's best films, a film that captures everything that was absolutely brilliant about The Tree of Life yet also tiptoeing ever so slightly towards a more cohesive narrative that gives us a story to understand, people cling to and a vision to embrace. I realize, and I assume that Malick realizes, that not everyone will feel this way. It's nearly impossible to make a bold and artistically true film without alienating some people along the way. It makes sense that Malick found himself cutting scene after scene and character after character in the editing room, because I picture this being a film that Malick put on paper then, as it came to life, he realized this wondrous beast that he was creating. I have no clue the pieces that he left aside, but the film that remains is a raw, emotionally resonant and achingly authentic near masterpiece that is flawed only in the ways in which it mirrors the story it is telling.

Neil (Ben Affleck) is in Paris where he meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). Neil is resistant to any semblance of commitment, but he has fallen hard in the only way that he knows how to fall so he asks Marina and Tatiana to join him when he returns to his home in Oklahoma. For awhile, all is blissful. Eventually, however, the fractures begin when Marina is forced to return to France as her visa expires. In her absence, Neil connects with an old flame (Rachel McAdams) before a crisis involving Marina makes him realize that his loyalties are stronger than he'd realized. Into this story is set Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a friend and confidante of Marina's, who himself seems to be experiencing a crisis of faith that very much mirrors in larger terms the story that unfolds.

While there is a story in To the Wonder, one would be misguided to expect the film itself to unfold in such a traditional manner of your typical Hollywood storytelling. Dialogue is sparse in To the Wonder, because there are stories that transcend words and love is perhaps the greatest story of them all. If you are unable to surrender, and I mean really surrender to a film that doesn't involve special effects or trumped up histrionics, then you will likely find To the Wonder to be an absolutely maddening experience. Malick is a patient filmmaker who has no desire to rush the story, while he also has absolutely no need to fluff up his film with unnecessary distractions. To the Wonder left me feeling very much how I felt as I watched the masterful documentary Into the Silence. If you've never seen it, I pity you.

I must confess that I have already seen To the Wonder twice. I will see it again. And again. After my first viewing, the film felt very much like a cousin to The Tree of Life yet perhaps even more abstract and resistant to definition and structure. After my second viewing, however, I realized that my initial interpretation was impacted by my own "baggage" and once I really, fully immersed myself in Malick's vision I felt myself soothed and nurtured and unsure and insecure and wondering and wandering and all those things we do when we are wrapped in a blanket of love and everything that it means.

I know. I know. This sounds pretentious and maybe even impossible. Maybe it is. Maybe it's not. Maybe I'm making too much out of the entire thing, but all I can give you is what I experienced and what I experienced was consummate filmmaking that immersed me in both story and the wonder of it all.

It might seem that without dialogue and with so much emphasis on sight and sound that the actual acting plays second fiddle here, yet this is far from the truth. After The Tree of Life, Sean Penn spoke without hesitation about his frustrations in working with Malick on a film that it seemed like he never really understood. With To the Wonder, it feels like everyone's on the same page and everyone "gets it" even if they may not fully realize what they get. While Ben Affleck has proven himself to be more successful at directing than acting as of late, he makes for a mesmerizing presence in this film in capturing a man who seems at least somewhat incapable of love yet who loves anyway and tries to give himself fully to it. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko has what is arguably the film's center role and she is mesmerizing in it, embodying Marina as a simultaneously silly and serene and even sad young woman. As Jane, Rachel McAdams has the least to do but she's far too good of an actress to do very little. While her appearance is relatively brief, the memory of her stays with you as her contemplate her presence in this universal story. Finally, there is Javier Bardem who, once again, proves that he is simply one of the very best actors working today. As Father Quintana, Bardem is able to communicate layers upon layers of Quintana's soul often without words but with a physical performance that says volumes.

Emmanuel Lubezki's lensing is sublime, perhaps even more searching than in The Tree of Life as if it were on some sort of walkabout. Hanan Townsend's original music is somehow both classical and universal. Truthfully, it feels unjust to not acknowledge that the film exudes a sort of sensuality, perhaps even eroticism, that speaks to the intimacy of life and love both 1:1 and universal in nature.

To the Wonder is destined to be a much debated film. It is destined to be a film embraced by some, loathed by many and misunderstood by most. It is a film for which I'm grateful distribution comes courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, because in the hands of a Hollywood studio this film would be painted as something that it's not.

Is To the Wonder a masterpiece?

I'm not sure "masterpiece" is the word I would use. In fact, I think To the Wonder is a true wonder.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
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