Review: To The Wonder (TIFF 2012)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: A Frenchwoman (Olga Kurylenko) and her young daughter are brought to rural Oklahoma to live with the enigmatic Neil (Ben Affleck).

REVIEW: TO THE WONDER is Terrence Malick as his most pretentious, or rather- Malick-y. Formerly a director that could take up to decades between films (such as the twenty year gap between DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE THIN RED LINE), the newly prolific Malick is back with a film that takes the elements that many people found infuriating about TREE OF LIFE, and expands them to feature length.

More of a two-hour tone poem than a film, TO THE WONDER really strikes me as little more than Malick’s B-roll from TREE OF LIFE, juiced up the appearances of stars like Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem and Olga Kurylenko, although they’re all treated as window dressing. In fact, TO THE WONDER is completely devoid of any consequential dialogue, with everything being explained by the mostly French narration, which is full of knee-slappers like “explain this love that loves”- which sounds like the ramblings of a lovesick emo college kid.

And the twirling… Let’s not forget the twirling. For some reason, Malick keeps Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams (in a tiny aside that could have been cut from the film without anyone ever being the wiser) in a constant state of motion, with them twirling their way through corn fields, department stores, sparsely decorate homes, etc. Rest assured, anywhere there’s room to twirl, they’ll twirl.

One thing that I should make clear is that, while it occasionally infuriated me, I really liked TREE OF LIFE. While it meandered, it was gorgeous (as is TO THE WONDER, with them both having been shot by Emmanuel Lubezki), and the story was affecting. But, TO THE WONDER has absolutely nothing going on, other than Affleck (who has maybe five lines of dialogue) struggling to love his new family- with his coldness being paralleled by the dying land he surveys (Malick shoots Wal-Mart style department stores with disgust).

In addition to the aside with McAdams, Malick also includes a completely extraneous subplot with Javier Bardem as a priest suffering through a crisis of faith, but- and here’s the rub, the twenty minutes with Bardem are far superior to anything else in the film. His interactions with the townsfolk, many of whom seem to be non-actors, are fascinating- with his intellectual Spanish priest seeming like an alien among them, although Bardem conveys a lot of compassion. This part might have sustained a film, but sadly, Malick is more interested in grass and twirling.

While I disliked TO THE WONDER, I’m sure there are some Malick devotees who will love it, and say that I missed the point, didn’t appreciate the imagery, needed to drink more coffee before, etc. That’s fine- different strokes for different folks, but if Malick is going to continue to appeal to anyone outside of an incredibly niche audience, he needs to at least tell a compelling story. Whatever it is, TO THE WONDER is far from compelling.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.