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To the Wonder

Film buffs run hot-and-cold on Terrence Malick, and his latest may leave them frigid.

Phil Bacharach August 9th, 2013

Terrence Malick either inspires or bores. There isn’t much middle ground when it comes to assessing the famously reclusive filmmaker who has made only six features since his 1973 debut, Badlands.

His Tree of Life in 2011 earned praise and derision alike for its ambitions and meandering, largely plotless tale. It was my No. 1 film that year, but I had no idea at the time that it would look like Iron Man 3 when compared to his follow-up, To the Wonder.

Now on Blu-ray and DVD after a limited theatrical run, To the Wonder is a meditation on faith, God, love, relationships, forgiveness — you name it. Malick does not want for artistic aspirations. Coherence, however, is another matter.

The story, such as it is, concerns a romance between Neil (Ben Affleck, Argo), an Oklahoma native who doesn’t talk much, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko, Oblivion), a Ukrainian single mother living in France. The couple frolics — there is much copious and literal frolicking — amid the streets of Paris. Eventually, Neil brings his lover and her 10-year-old daughter back to the Sooner State.

Shot largely in Bartlesville and surrounding areas, To the Wonder is a coming home of sorts for Malick, who partly grew up in northern Oklahoma and whose parents still reside there. The land is presented at its most lovely, from sprawling fields and open skies to the bison roaming the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Even a Sonic drive-in at twilight receives the Malick treatment.

Coupled with the always-moving camera of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who lensed Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World, the movie offers some of the most spectacular views of Oklahoma you’ll see outside an energy company commercial. “A land so calm, honest, rich,” marvels Marina.

But she also finds her new home to be isolating, especially with Neil busy so often with his job, something about surveying environmental problems.

The alone time allows Marina to twirl through grocery stores and practice flopping onto her bed. It’s not enough. When her visa expires, she and her daughter return to Europe.

Neil finds solace with Jane (Rachel McAdams, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), an old flame whose ranch is in financial trouble. “You make me laugh. You make me happy,” Jane tells Neil in one of the film’s more inadvertently hilarious moments, considering that the man says little and broods much.

While the Neil-Marina-Jane triangle slogs on, To the Wonder incorporates a Bartlesville clergyman (Javier Bardem, Skyfall) having a crisis of faith.

Crises of faith are contagious here, especially when it comes to trusting that this fog of pretentiousness is going anywhere. Characters appear and disappear without explanation, a likely by-product of Malick reportedly having left reams of material on the cutting-room floor — including entire scenes with such names as Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain and Amanda Peet.

What did remain is first-person, largely whispered voice-over containing such nuggets as, “I in you. You in me.” The Beatles said pretty much the same thing in “I Am the Walrus,” and in under five minutes.

Malick’s artistry is unequivocal in To the Wonder. Its painterly visuals are impressive, as is the sheer audacity of what’s on its mind. But loftiness needs a little weight to keep it from floating away. In the end, its lack of focus and discipline inspires more boredom than wonder.

Hey! Read This:
Argo Blu-ray review    
Chicken-Fried News: No Wonder     
Chicken-Fried News: Tots entertainment  
Iron Man 3 film review    
Oblivion Blu-ray review
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Blu-ray review    
The Tree of Life film review    

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