If The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s last film, was a painting, his most recent, To the Wonder, is a poem. And like the difference between, say, a poem and a short story, you likely have to know what you’re getting into to enjoy the work. If you’re not familiar with Malick’s film (and cards on the table, I can’t say I am beyond the two already mentioned), To the Wonder will probably be unlike just about anything you’ve ever seen before. There is a narrative here, but it’s subtle, slow playing to an extreme. What narrative impetus there is exists solely for the purpose of illuminating the characters, images, and themes at play. Again, this is a poem. Every image is carefully constructed to be evocative. Not symbolic, necessarily; there’s danger in this, as with any work, in reading too much into the text (or image). But goodness, is it evocative.
There’s a shot maybe two thirds of the way through the film where one of the main characters walks up to and ascends a flight of stairs. Without getting into specifics, this climb is an enormously important one. To ascent the stairs is to make a choice, a choice from which there may be no turning back. The audience knows this. The character knows this. And the camera, lingering on the stairs, shows us that the character knows this. But when the character arrives at the foot of the stairs she barely pauses. After all, they’re only stairs. Objects are only symbolic in retrospect.
This is the sort of thing that makes “To the Wonder” brilliant. Malick is of the class of craftsmen whose work transcends the demarcation into true artistry. He commands the images that are shown with purpose. It is a pet peeve of mine (some of you may know this already) to fixate on what a story is supposedly “about.” But in this case, to fail to discuss the way Malick evokes the complexity and struggle and rewards of love and of forgiveness and of faith would to do a grand disservice to what is at play here. This is a film about those ideas, and powerfully stated. Narrative is a tool which Malick uses to shape a discussion which is wrapped in both difficulty and hope, as is character, as is setting, as is every element which goes into “To the Wonder.”
This is not to say it’s a perfect film. It lingers a little longer than it maybe should, with just a few too many shots of people playfully skipping by the camera, and the ending didn’t quite bring it home for me. In fact, the ending (again, without going into specifics) might turn some people off. After the swell that leads up to it, the ending itself can feel a little empty. But it needs to. My gripe is with the ending not being executed to the same level as so much of the rest of the film, not its existence. Ben Affleck also comes across a bit wooden. This is principally because he’s not given much room to maneuver through most of the film, and likely the blame lies more with his character than with Affleck himself. While the character ultimately worked for me, he most of the time seemed too one dimensional, too stereotypical, and that was odd in a film of such complexity.
The Verdict: 9 out of 10 (5/5 Concept, 4/5 Execution)
As you may have noticed, this review is somewhat shorter than most. That’s because it’s difficult to talk about To the Wonder in detail, particularly without going shot by shot through the entire film. There’s very little narrative to dissect, and the film exists as a sort of tonal, emotional, ephemeral thing, not a direct and solid story. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have power.
To the Wonder is an excellent film, a deeply meaningful and moving film with something to say about the nature of love, forgiveness, faith, and life. Its flaws are minor, and stick out principally because of the exceeding quality of the rest of the movie. It is not the sort of film that I would want to see all the time, but there should be a place reserved for films like To the Wonder to exist, as it does things many other films will not and/or cannot. Do yourself a favor and go see this movie.