Toronto International Film Festival 2012: To the Wonder

Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in To the Wonder

Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in To the Wonder

Once upon a time, I never thought I'd get a chance to review two Terrence Malick films in a single decade, but the reclusive director has been on an unusually productive kick lately. Not only has he premiered a new feature, To the Wonder, just one year after The Tree of Life, but he reportedly has two more movies in the works. Of course, much of Malick's mystique stems from his 20-year absence from filmmaking: During the decades that followed his two '70s masterworks, Badlands and Days of Heaven, he kept critics asking what might have been. When The Thin Red Line showed signs of a return to form, the impression—at least among us fans—was that he could do no wrong. But his recent work has only grown more divisive, with writers bending over backward to defend even the purplest voiceovers in The New World. With Malick turning out movies at a regular rate, would his most ardent acolytes claim him as a genius every time?

The boos that greeted To the Wonder at Venice suggested the answer is a decided no. But that hostile reaction was unearned: Modest and, by the director's recent standards, completely straightforward, To the Wonder is a fascinating departure. Though I'm not finding immediate confirmation of this, it appeared, as projected, to be Malick's first feature in digital video, which lends an entirely new flavor to his brand of sunset-inflused visual poetry. The first half-hour, as a mother (Olga Kurylenko) and daughter (Tatiana Chiline) acclimate to life in America—where they've moved to be with an Oklahoma man (Ben Affleck) the mother has met in Paris—is lovely and strange, finding the elemental in the familiar. (Though the girl exclaiming "everything is beautiful here!" in the supermarket is a bit much.)

Along with the Sean Penn scenes in The Tree of Life, To the Wonder—said to be autobiographically inspired—is also the only Malick film set in the present day. It's novel to see him shooting amid strip malls and suburban sprawl. In another departure from Malick's last two films, the central relationship isn't simply ethereal; there's even a bit of sex and nudity. To the Wonder also addresses one of my reservations about The Tree of Life, which, for a film seeking to grapple with the complexities of human existence, seems strikingly unconcerned with the society beyond the main character's yard. Smaller in scope, To the Wonder nevertheless spends substantial stretches following Javier Bardem's priest's work in blighted communities. 

Still, once the movie deviates from its initial fish-out-of-water angle, the blandness of Malick's central scenario begins to overwhelm. You might say that plot was never Malick's strong suit, but there's a difference between archetypal and underwritten; like The New World and The Tree of Life, To the Wonder suggests there's no narrative hole Malick can't plug with a shot of a wheat field or a snatch of Wagner. (It appears he's developed sufficient contempt for his dialogue to drown out long stretches of it with music.) My colleague Noel Murray, who liked the film more than I did, suggested that perhaps now we know too much about how Malick makes his movies, shooting endless footage and radically altering his films in the editing room. Indeed, there were moments where I tuned out the film and pictured Malick simply directing Rachel McAdams, who plays the Other Woman: "Just lean in and whisper a sweet nothing! Doesn't matter what you say. I'll fix that later."

And the multilingual voiceover, while less oppressive this time around, is filled with the sort of moony philosophizing that's marred all of Malick's films since Thin Red Line. In particular, Bardem's musings ("How long will you hide yourself?" he asks—of God) give the movie a proselytic air. His parting words to us seem especially out of place, turning this slender love-triangle narrative into a pretext for evangelizing.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)