I do not trust the cinematic tastes of anyone who does not include Terrence Malick in their list of the best directors working today, but let's face facts, the masses, the typical multiplex moviegoers, do not "get" Terrence Malick, and they most likely never will. Malick, who's first feature, 1973's Badlands, was a pretty straightforward story of love and lust and spree-killing, has become more and more esoteric over the years, and in turn less and less linear, and moving gleefully further and further away from traditional narrative storytelling. From the melodic Days of Heaven in 1978 to the fragmented narrative of The Thin Red Line in 1998 to the other-worldliness of 2005's The New World to the enigmatic bravado of The Tree of Life two years ago, the auteur has become more and more out of touch with those aforementioned multiplex masses, but at the same time, he has become more and more in tune with those of a more artistic, a more cinematic bent. If you happen to be one of those who hated The Tree of Life - and sadly enough, there are a lot of you out there - then you will probably dislike the director's latest film, To the Wonder, just as rabidly, but for those who consider The Tree of Life to be a masterpiece - just like this critic does - then To the Wonder, though not quite as spectacular, as eye-popping a creature as the former film, is just your proverbial cup of tea, and not to sound too condescending and/or film snobbish, but it is really this group of cinephiles for whom I write this review. Others be damned, because to paraphrase Truffaut's exclamations about those who did not like Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar, if one does not appreciate Malick, then one does not understand cinema.
To do what one might call a film review proper, I am told one must give a brief, non-spoiler-riddled synopsis of said film. I personally, have never adhered to such a proper way of doing things, and oft times skip the plot altogether, moving onto and discussing the feel, mood and/or look of the film instead. Some readers - probably those who do not "get" Malick, if we are being honest - may take issue to such an approach, but that has never bothered me. With a film like To the Wonder though, none of this ever comes into play, as we are critiquing a film that really has no plot proper, nor any kind of reasonably sufficient way of synopsisizing such a non-plot. Basically, we have art-for-art's-sake, and even though that may not be enough for all those aforementioned mainstream moviegoers, it is truly cinema at its purest, most unadulterated form. Once you let the film pour over you, as if you are lying on the beach and the waves are Malick's cinematic tendrils, lapping across your body and your mind, the film becomes something akin to a dream. Such a description may seem rather cliché - and I suppose, worded that way, it is quite cliché - but it is nonetheless as accurate a statement as any made on or about the film - or for that matter, Malick's entire oeuvre. Malick's films defy description - another cliché perhaps - and therefore are perfect to use as a discussion of pure filmmaking - which I suppose, we should get along to now.
Basically, to give whatever description I can, the film is about life and love and god and salvation. Vague enough for ya? Good. Seriously though, To the Wonder, much in the same way most of Malick's films have, delves into the meanings of life, and who or what is god, and how or why we need to be saved or redeemed or whatever some religions call such a thing. If you are looking for deep and philosophical discussions and pontificating diatribes on these subjects, you are not about to find that in Malick. What you will find is thought and conceptual ideas, a visual feel for the holy and the spiritual, what you will find is the metaphysical and the metaphorical. Sure, you will see Ben Affleck, fresh off his Oscar night winnings, and you will see Javier Bardem and Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams, but you will not really see Ben Affleck and the others, for they are merely playing pieces for Malick to place where he wishes. Pawns for the director's will, you might say. Affleck, ostensibly the star of the film, has maybe thirty or forty lines of dialogue, many of which are trailed off to a whisper half way through. This is not a Ben Affleck film, this is a Terrence Malick film, and that shows in the lack of obvious structure, making way for an abstract expressionistic hand instead. The film may not say much to those dumbed-down masses that thrive on reality TV and pop music, but for those that can see the supposedly unseeable - wow. Wow indeed.
Granted, To the Wonder may not be to the level of brilliance that The Tree of Life exuded. Along with Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life is one of Malick's true masterpieces, and even though I would not use such a word when describing the auteur's other four films - mainly because I wish not to toss around such a word willy-nilly until it loses all its inherent power - To the Wonder is still a quite brilliant visual and aural essay on god and salvation. When The Tree of Life came out, flocks of mainstream audiences rushed for the exit doors, unable to deal with or understand the visions that were coming out of Malick's camera-mind, his Kino-eye, if you will - so much so that many theaters had to post warnings claiming that no refunds would be issued for not liking (nee, understanding) the film. To the Wonder takes much the same non-linear approach that The Tree of Life did, though perhaps not as excruciating for the average viewer, nor as long, as this film comes in a good forty minutes lighter than the former (and their are no dinosaurs or big bang-esque painterly moments, and therefore receives much the same confused and confusing reaction. As for this critic, To the Wonder is a beautiful and succulent work of cinematic art, and is highly recommended to any takers who think they are up to such a supposedly daunting task. And remember, if you do not like or understand Malick, then you do not understand cinema.
I would like to end this review with a quote from someone who understood cinema to the greatest of degrees. Roger Ebert has always been one of my favourite critics, and the one man I would always go to when wanting to know about a particular film, or even cinema as a whole. Although I never had the honour of meeting the man, I was lucky enough to have several correspondences with him in the final few years of his life. To the Wonder was the last film review Roger Ebert ever wrote, handing it three and a half stars out of four. It was published just a few days after his passing. To the Wonder is a particularly difficult film to sum up in a few words - and I know I did not accomplish that here in my review of many words - but I think Ebert did it better than anyone else. Roger said of the film, "A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision." I could not have said it any better myself.