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TIFF 2012 Review: ‘To The Wonder’ Is a More Focused Film from Terrence Malick

By  · Published on September 18th, 2012

by Andrew Robinson

If you’ve watched a movie about love, marriage, the environment and religion all wrapped up together with only enough dialogue to fill a few minutes of a Tarantino screenplay, it was probably a Terrence Malick film. His latest, To The Wonder, uses the same voyeuristic style that the director has been working on from Days of Heaven and refuses to discard. The film uses emotion and voice over as a narrative compass which pushes the film forward in a way that almost feels documentary-like. We’re cutting into this couple’s life at distinct points to find out how they truly feel about one another and how that progresses.

It’s easy to casually view Malick’s latest efforts and label it with a word like “pretentious.” The film is very demanding and requires great attention as well as an ability to consider rounded viewpoints on the topics at hand. This is where Malick’s style comes to an advantage. The film makes the core themes become points of discussion as opposed to cannons bursting with the filmmaker’s own position.

The storytelling, as obtuse as it may be, remains fascinating. It’s a wonder (pun intended) that he can portray a cohesive story through dazzling visuals and a voice over that merely talks about characters feelings beyond simple exposition. Instead, Malick allows the visual cuts of seeing Neil (Ben Affleck), Marina (Olga Kurylenko), Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) and Jane (Rachel McAdams) to let us discern as to what’s actually going on between all of these complex characters even though, for the most part, we’re just looking at pretty shots of the sun in the distance through a field of tall grass or a tree.

The Tree of Life stood as the example of Malick’s new idealized version of filmmaking. It remains his most audacious film yet. To The Wonder tries to embed a lot of other ideals which one can take from it, but remains a romantic film at its core – making it a bit more solid. The movie doesn’t try and accomplish more than it can handle by way of abstracting its thoughts. This allows for the viewer to focus on more closely honed philosophies and therefore draw more from the film itself.

The film does have elements of the director’s environmentalist notions. In it as we see Neil, who’s an environmental scientist who works for a construction company, walking through fields and communities taking samples of waste, dirt and even children’s hair to test and see if any negative results come about due to the work being done by his firm. When the film begins on a beach in France showing us the beauty of this world, it makes the audience question how the progress that we continually strive for can affect those landmarks of beauty and if that cost is worthy of the benefits. Fortunately, the whole of these questions come from subtle presentation instead of characters hammering points home.

In To The Wonder, Malick also explores the notion of being entrapped and the concept of love in that context. With Neil’s relationships being highlighted, we get a glimpse of his own definition of love. Early on we see him with Marina – who says she doesn’t need to be married as long as she has love. Soon enough, though, she needs marriage for an entirely different reason that threatens the balance and presence of love for each of them.

Is the film telling us that love cannot exist outside of freedom? Is it saying that these characters didn’t love each other to begin with? Is love more than just the first year of honeymooning?

The film proposes so many different variations of what the idea is, but instead of agreeing to one (or many) of these ideals, it refreshingly asks the viewer to decide.

The Upside: You’ll have an incalculable amount of desktop screencaps when the Blu-ray is released

The Downside: If you hated The Tree of Life, you’ll probably hate this.

On the Side: Christian Bale was originally in Ben Affleck’s role.

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