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If Terrence Malick‘s reputation as a misfit genius has proceeded him since his return to cinema in the 1990′s, it was partly because he never talked to press and his films often took years to come out. So that he followed The Tree of Life so quickly with To The Wonder — on top of the latter being a much more minor key picture — means that the knives seem to be out for this film; it’s easily his worst reviewed movie. But it’s also a film that is in its own language, so it’s bound to disappoint.

The Players:

The Plot:

After spending time together in Europe, Neil (Affleck) asks Marina (Kurylenko) to move with her daughter to America with him. She agrees, their relationship falls apart. He starts seeing an ex-girlfriend (McAdams), but that too won’t settle. So he makes amends with Marina, but there are still problems. Father Quintana is Neil and Marina’s priest, and he spends his time trying to help the downtrodden.

Terrence Malick

Until The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick made films that had a familiar Hollywood layout but were told in a way that was foreign to most audiences. Regardless of how audiences reacted to the films, the structure, the backbone, was not dissimilar to any other movie. With Tree of Life, he started to abandon conventional structure, and here in To the Wonder, it’s impossible to suggest there’s a three act pull to the film at all. This is also (at least part of) why the film is being met with more resistance than his other films, on top of this feeling minor key for the director whose more recent output has been more about man’s relationship to God, or manifest destiny, or war. This has no period setting, nor the grander qualities that have marked his work. The obvious musical comparison would be to say that this is Amnesiac to Tree of Life‘s Kid A.

But perhaps more importantly to note than that is that this is a daring film that doesn’t play by conventional rules, and is a capital A art film, the kind that were and are mostly made outside of America. If you find filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky or Michelangelo Antonioni dull and/or pretentious then you should probably skip this movie. Normally, we’d offer a good, so-so and bad sections for a movie. This doesn’t fit into that sort of categorizing. This isn’t product. And like a lot of art films, the movie is as much about what the viewer is about to respond to within the work. It requires an active viewer, which is unlike about 99% of all movies made in Hollywood.

The narrative, such as it is, shows relationships falling apart and in the latter sections shows them in contrast to the work of the priest played by Javier Bardem. These elements seem unsynchronized. But as I watched the film, I wondered if Malick was using a priest dealing with the poor and unfortunate and their sadness to contrast with the main characters, who were all well off, had jobs, ate well, but couldn’t find happiness in their relationships. Was Malick commenting on the pettiness of their personal problems, or was he suggesting that so much of life, regardless of station, is about feeling unsettled and discontented.

This may be the most aware Malick film yet in some ways. He doesn’t usually seem to offer that sort of commentary, but I’m fascinated with how he opens the film with handheld, cell phone shot footage. It starts in a way that is completely ugly and unexpected from Malick’s usual beautiful frames. Is he addressing the rise of digital photography? Or how a new generation communicates and records? Or is it just of the moment?

This is the first film that Malick has done that isn’t set in the past, which has proved distracting for some viewers unused to awe being in close proximity to shopping at supermarkets and eating at Sonic. That and Malick’s effort to keep Kurylenko’s character (and her daughter) often spinning in the frame offers moments that feel incongruous. And with a script that was mostly improv’d, it’s hard to know how much design is intentional, or if this — as its detractors will note — an assemblage of beautiful images that don’t amount to much. I agree with Bilge Ebiri, I think Malick is composing a ballet.

But I found much to dig through and reflect on, not everyone will. It doesn’t give off the immediate sense of wonder and awe as his last couple films, but it’s also not tacking the grand nature of existence, so much as the pain of love and how fleeting it can be. In that sense it is a powerful film, but when someone like Wong Kar-Wai does it, it’s generally much shorter and with a stronger through line. But the images (like walking on the beach) and ideas (about how things fall apart) have stayed with me longer than most films I’ve watched since I saw this movie. Some go to movies to be entertained, and maybe there’s some level to which this film is entertaining, but if you like movies that are experiences, that are hard to shake, this is definitely something worth seeking out.

And in some ways, as much as The Tree of Life felt like the summation of everything that Terrence Malick ever sought to do with a film, this is the most Malick film he’s yet made, and features all the things that people hate about him, from sunlit touching stuff, to whispered voice overs. But this isn’t self-parody, and though those are well used tools in Malick’s arsenal, they have purpose.

Overall: Malick/10 (but mostly 8.5/10)

To The Wonder opens in a limited engagement Friday, April 12, and is also available on Video on Demand.

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