Home Movies Director Malick’s Wife: “We Thought About Becoming Canadian Citizens After 9-11”

At the North American premiere of Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” his third wife, Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace came to the podium on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theater (Toronto Film Festival) and said: “We thought about becoming Canadian citizens after 9/11. We have much to learn from you.”

Her statement made about as much sense as the two and a half hour movie that subsequently unfurled before us. “To the Wonder” is the second film in Malick’s Renaissance, following the mostly incoherent “Tree of Life.” But with this one, Malick is way out on a limb. He’s made a long, boring tone poem that has almost no dialogue, just an ethereal narration, no plot or story that can be understood without production notes in hand.

What did Ecky mean? That it’s safer in Canada? “We have much to learn from you” sounds like a line from a space alien movie. Considering that the Malicks don’t live anywhere near New York City, or even Pennsylvania, one wonders what their problem was. If they wanted to move to Canada, no one would have objected.

Terrence Malick used to be held in high esteem by cinephiles and filmmakers. His early movies, especially “Days of Heaven,” are considered classics. “Days of Heaven” was marked by Nestor Almendros’s gorgeous cinematography that emphasized the fields of gold in the mid western setting where Richard Gere came to overturn the marriage of Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard. In 1978, “Days of Heaven” was astonishing. And it was only 94 minutes long.

It would be twenty years– two decades–before Malick would return with “The Thin Red Line.” The movie divided audiences and critics, but because it was Malick, and Sean Penn headed up an eclectic cast, the reclusive, mysterious director was applauded. John Toll evoked Almendros’s work.

Seven more years passed, until 2005, when Malick gave birth to “A New World.” Beautifully shot, but incoherent and very long, the movie did poorly financially and critically.

You’d think that would have been it, but Malick crossed paths with an enthusiastic backer, William Pohlad. Bill Pohlad is a film producer who came to Holywood with the backing of his late billionaire father, Carl Pohlad. The Pohlads are the second biggest Pepsi bottler in America and own, among other things, the Minnesota Twins.

Pohlad, with deep, deep pockets, can afford to indulge Terry Malick in any pursuit. That’s why we have “Tree of Life,” punctuated with National Geographic type images and a dinosaur. Stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain exchange not one word of dialogue. Sean Penn has admitted he has no idea what he was doing in the movie.

And now, ta da: “To the Wonder.” Unlike “Tree of Life,” this thing is totally incoherent. There isn’t a whisper of a story. It looks like it was shot by your kid on his video camera. There’s lots pretty images–more for Malick’s National Geo–but nothing that suggests a movie. Someone could spin it as a “meditation” or some such new age-speak, but really, when you think of “Days of Heaven,” this “film” is ridiculous. Only the most gullible or pretentious audiences will tell you how much they love it. Many will sleep, uninterrupted.

Ben Affleck skipped the premiere since in Venice the movie was booed. Also he’d to have answer questions about his muteness. Privately, when he was here for “Argo,” he told intimates that he hated the film. Malick, of course, is nowhere to be seen. He refuses to be interviewed or to defend or explain his work. So he sent his third wife out on the stage, and she made her 9/11 pronouncement.

For yours truly, it was a perfectly loony way to end a pretty good Toronto Film Festival. There were so many good movies this year– from “Silver Linings Playbook” to “The Iceman” to “Imogene” and “Frances Ha,” “The Sapphires,” “The Master,” “Greetings from Tim Buckley”– that we can forgive almost anything. But Malick is either incapable of making a film that makes any sense, or doesn’t care to. And so audiences must accept or reject that idea. But genius has a shelf life.

PS “To the Wonder” also stars Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem, just slightly. Several actors including Rachel Weisz, filmed scenes that were cut entirely. At the Q&A, Olga and Rachel McAdams said that much of what they filmed, including dialogue, was also cut.

And there are three more Malick-Pohlad collaborations to come. Let’s hope there’s some kind of improvement in the next ones. Or at least some dialogue.

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Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
3 replies to this post
  1. I would have thought it was painfully obvious why decent Americans would consider becoming Canadian after 9/11. Being citizens of a country that starts wars without good reason, tortures people and locks them up without trial for decades cannot be a comfortable experience for anyone with both a heart and a brain.

    “To The Wonder” is entirely coherent to anyone who’s paying attention. Obviously some of the more obvious plot elements have been removed, but the central themes of love found and lost, the crisis of faith and the decline of the American economy are very clear. Perhaps you should learn to watch films before attempting a career as a movie critic?

  2. You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I’m with the other poster. It feels like you already had and opinion on this film, and were watching to either ‘prove or disprove’ what you already felt. Malick isn’t for everyone. I consider myself a fan, and quite frankly, watching him 1 a month would probably be a chore for me. However, he marches to his own beat, and makes his own films to his personal muse, which is apparently ‘the spiritual/emotional life’. I’m glad some film makers don’t follow the rules, even if the films fail.

  3. I respect your opinion as a critic but are you saying anything helpful here? I don’t think so. There is a vast gulf between ‘constructive criticism’ and ‘self opinionated’. I would suggest you are on the wrong beach.

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