Michael Strenski’s review published on Letterboxd:
Hey, guess what... this movie's awesome.
Now, I'm not placing To the Wonder alongside masterpieces like The New World or The Tree of Life. Not yet anyway. I enjoyed To the Wonder during its theatrical run but I don't think I actually appreciated it. I walked away thinking that there was something missing. Silly me, the whole fucking movie is about something missing! I can't think of a film that is as engaged with questioning itself and its methods than this. It's funny that the movie that tested the faith of many Malick diehards is the one that's about testing one's faith.
Initial reviews had plenty to say about the preponderance of Olga Kurylenko's twirling. I thought that was a bit unfair at the time. Constant movement is an explicit part of her character. It is shown that she is a dancer but I didn't really think about what that means in the context of the film. Like Javier Bardem's Father Quintana, Kurylenko's (pre-)occupation is trying to bring beauty and transcendence into the world. The fact that both characters are so beaten down by the crushing banality and sadness of everyday existence is the central struggle at play here. It is what Malick himself is desperately trying to do with each film.
However, I can't help but see Malick questioning his stated goal and approach throughout the film. Sure, we get a gorgeous score, stunning Emmanuel Lubezki cinematography, and some beautiful movie stars. But as the film goes on we also get bulldozers plundering the earth, fluorescent supermarket aisles, and real, flawed human beings, replete with missing teeth, scars, and other deformities.
The aforementioned twirling -- a state of lyrical ecstasy -- is actually only overwhelming in the opening prologue, with Kurylenko's Marina and Ben Affleck's Neil courting one another amongst the beauty of Paris. They're in love. The camera then is in a constant state of motion, tracking this way and that and the classical score ratchets up ever higher into fits of exultation. But then the lovebirds move to Oklahoma and reality sets in, to their lives and to the movie.
At this point the techniques behind the camera change subtly. The film slows down and Malick pulls off a really wonderful magic trick. He juxtaposed Paris in all of its cultured splendor with the vast expanses of middle America, making us feel as empty as the plains upon our arrival. Over the subsequent hour he peels back the layers, unveiling the real beauty of the heartland on its own terms; which despite the rundown homes, strip malls, and oil drilling, really does become something gorgeous. Just as we are getting wrapped up in the reverie of seeing Rachel McAdams silhouetted by the sunset, Malick cuts to Kurylenko back in Paris. But this time Paris is bustling, with noise, traffic, and cold modern architecture. This is not the place we left an hour earlier. It is grotesque.
The arrival of Kurylenko's gypsy sister was a scene that frustrated me the first time through but now seems like the defining moment of Malick interrogating himself. The sister is a whirlwind of emotion. She is seen yelling in the streets, throwing Kurylenko's possessions away, and literally forcing her sister to yes, twirl. The character is at odds with where the film is at this juncture. She's not a manic pixie dream girl, she's a maniac on Pixy-Stix. The film seems to offer her up as a sacrifice, showing us the road it could have traveled down. We are all so thankful when she disappears.
Throughout the film Malick pushes and pulls with his current style in fascinating ways and I think he discovers that he's gone as far as he can with it. There's no proof to this and Knight of Cups or whatever he releases next may make To the Wonder look like Gone Girl but this movie begins with pure abstract movement and ends with static shots of still landscapes. The truth is probably somewhere in between and Malick (who has yet to rest on any laurels) is still searching. That is a good thing.
I very much look forward to discovering this film again.