Terrence Malick's latest is gorgeous, dumbfounding, insightful, and defiantly challenging - you'll either love it immediately or turn it off in a huff...
Magnolia / 112 Minutes / 2013 / Rated R / Street Date: August 6, 2013
My guess is that Terrence Malick has two or three more like To the Wonder before the law of diminishing returns cuts him off. The Tree of Life was oblique, man, but also made some impressive coin (especially in international markets) and even sprouted a handful of high-profile Oscar nominations, to boot. To the Wonder was received with tepid applause when it showed at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and major indie distributors didn’t want to double-down on its impressionistic musings: it ended up receiving a nominal release in arthouses and VOD this spring.
And audiences pretty much dismissed the movie. Leading man Ben Affleck has maybe three or four full lines of dialogue in the entire movie, and its themes - of love and loss, of faith and listlessness – never fell into sharp focus. It felt on its surface like a straightforward story of a man (Affleck) torn between two women (Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko) with an ancillary story of a priest (Javier Bardem) grappling with the tumult of religion thrown in as a garnish.
But what floored me about seeing the film in cinemas (and in revisiting To the Wonder on this Blu-ray release) is the purposefully complex fashion in which Malick unveils his story. Lilting and nebulous almost to a fault, To the Wonder plays like a dramatic fugue or a particularly lucid dream: its atypical construction all but dares its viewers to stay at arm’s length, but there’s something vividly profound about the instinctive thrust of the film’s philosophical mumblings.
I’d love to have Malick keep making off-the-beaten-track gems like To the Wonder every year or two for the rest of his career, but I don’t know how many more of them the starmaker machine will give him big budgets for. But until that well runs dry, we have masterpieces like this one to resolve and decode: To the Wonder is a difficult, off-putting monologue of a movie, but within its narrative challenges lie shards of movie magic unlike anything else currently making the rounds.