To The Wonder (2012): An All-Thumbs Review

What follows is the first episode of a new review series that I’m calling All-Thumbs Video.

I’ve been dreaming of a new venture in long-form film criticism — reviews as fiction. As a speed-writing exercise, I’ll explore conflicting thoughts and feelings about film in rough-draft scenes set in one of the last video stores on earth.

This first chapter focuses on Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. I’ve seen the film three times now, and I’m still wrestling with it, arguing with myself and a variety of other reviewers.

Chapter One is dedicated to… well, if you read it to the end, you’ll know.

Note: I reserve the right to continue editing and polishing the review in second and third drafts over the first week of its publication. Feel free to send corrections or questions in an email or a comment. I’ll make repairs with gratitude.

The review may be spoiler-ish, but then, even the simplest descriptions of this movie are giving away just as much or more.

By the way, if you insist on reading a straightforward, traditional review… I’ve listed some of my favorites at the end.

Ready? Here we go…

All-Thumbs Video – Chapter One: To the Wonder

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When the sun rose on All-Thumbs Video that mid-April morning, Steven Ray Dark was already there unlocking the door. The store always opened bright and early, as customers liked to drop things off on their way to work, and sometimes he could convince the customers at the next-door espresso stand to come inside in for a rental or a bargain. Anything to keep customers hooked.

The wooden sign that he carried out to the Nickerson Street sidewalk listed the store’s highlights. Located on the Queen Anne Hill side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, between the original Zack’s Pizza joint and The Grinder coffee cart, it was a movie rental mecca for Seattle cinephiles due to its famous rarities section, its previously viewed movies sales, its section for film soundtracks on vinyl and CD, and its back-room movie club on Saturday nights. Portraits of local film critics lined the walls along with black-and-white signed glossies of film stars, Sean Axmaker and Moira Macdonald making good neighbors for Jessica Lange and Bill Murray.

After he opened the mini-blinds of the video store, Steve pulled the cord on the “OPEN” sign, pushed the heavy glass door until it snapped into a position (fulfilling the neon’s announcement), greeted the calico cat that pranced in from the sidewalk as always, and then paused for a moment, lost in the way the spring sunlight flooded Dravus Street from the east, the way it awakened the slender maples with their new leaves, the way it gleamed off the windshields that had been scrubbed clean by the night’s hard rain.

He stood there a long time, feeling grateful.

A strange feeling in these circumstances — gratitude. Whom would he thank for sunlight and maple trees?

Terrence Malick, probably. Malick movies had a way of reminding him to stop and enjoy the light. And he was enjoying it.

This wasn’t just another Wednesday morning. This was the morning after he had attended a sneak preview of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. He and five of his friends who called themselves “The Sight Club” had taken the first free passes off of the stack that was delivered to All Thumbs Video by local publicists, and they had made a ritual trip to get drinks and attend the screening, experiencing the thrill of being among the first locals to see a feature.

After several days of Seattle downpour, Steven had felt like he was away on an exotic vacation, basking in the vivid light and color of the movie. Malick’s art always gave audiences an escape into breathtaking natural beauty. To the Wonder felt like a sequel to The Tree of Life, just as The Tree of Life seemed like a sort of sequel to The New World and The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven and Badlands. Steve liked to think of Malick’s ouvre as a film festival about natural light. He had always felt allergic to flourescents; long hours in the store under flickering a buzzing tubes made him feel like a bug stuck to a bug zapper.

Today seemed like a day directed by Terrence Malick. He could almost hear the strains of Wagner in the air.

He breathed in waves of hot espresso wafting his way from The Grinder. Nearby, the Metro Bus 13 creaked and groaned — and even that was a heartening noise. He closed his eyes and imagined the Cat Bus from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro waking, stretching, and yowling lazily. He squinted as several passing vehicles — the college down the street kept this neighborhood busy with commuters — cast flashes of light in his direction like shouts of greeting and blessing.

I suppose this is what church must feel like for people who pray, he thought.

But then his habitual cynicism pounced. Sometimes. Perhaps. For those who actually genuinely pray, rather than just going through the motions. For those who pray humbly, instead of as gesture of piety and self-righteousness.

He had learned to pray while dating a spirited young woman, a Presbyterian. She was a musician and a dancer. When she was in the room, he found it easier to believe in God. Two years later, she had danced right out the door, taking several boxes of belongings with her, running off with the leader of a music team at their church. His prayers had ceased, his seedling faith burning up in the fire. Certain movies had become unwatchable, certain songs intolerable.

He put Terrence Malick’s The New World on the blu-ray player so that its sunny imagery filled the five TV screens scattered throughout the store. His boss, Marcus Clark, frequently reminded All Thumbs Video staff to only play box office hits and movies that were safe enough for families.

But Steve was allergic to most commercial entertainment. He wanted to watch things that would matter, that would lift him up outside of himself.

The cat — he’d named her Carmine, after a minor character in Midnight Run, his favorite cops and robbers movie — was already there in the cashier’s chair, blinking as fluorescents fluttered and flared throughout the store illuminating the genre-labeled sections: FAMILY, COMEDY, DRAMA, FOREIGN, FANTASY/SCIFI, ACTION/ADVENTURE, CULT CLASSIC, a rotating label that currently read CANNES WINNERS, and then, the sign with an arrow indicating another aisle behind a partition across half of the back wall: ADULT.

That was the only label that struck him as dishonest — ADULT.

“Good morning Steve Bastard,” came the predictable shout from the front of the store. In walked the short, brusque, broad-shouldered, red-haired and red-bearded fellow who was usually the first visitor to the store on weekends. But this was a Wednesday, a school day, and instead of teaching community college film courses, here he was — Dennis Farmer —ready to argue with the latest film reviews, ready to show off his encyclopedic film history knowledge, ready to quote his favorite movies incessantly and boast about whatever obscure cinema he’d seen thanks to “a favor from a friend.”

“Why can’t you get my name right?” Steve responded. “My last name is Dark. My first name is Bastard.”

“My bad.” Dennis went to the counter, reached out his hand to Carmine, who raised a paw and high-fived him — a trick that kept customers coming back again and again. And he waited longer than Steve expected to ask the question… about fifteen seconds.

And then, “So… is it too soon to talk about Twirl the Wonder?”

Of course, Dennis was going to be snarky about a Terrence Malick film. He always found Malick’s style too airy, too drifty, too full of what he called “perfume-commercial imagery.” And he found them overpopulated with whimsical, angelic females whose purpose in life seemed to be to dance and spin and levitate.

And of course, Dennis was going to make fun of him again for his film club rules. And the first rule of Sight Club was this: “No talking about the movie after the movie.”

Steve made it a rule to emphasize his belief that movies need to be savored, silently contemplated, “digested,” before viewers started arguing about them. Perhaps it was a self-centered policy, a shield against Dennis’s brash and instant opinions, giving him time to think over what he’d seen. But how often had he felt very differently about a film the morning after watching it than he had during the closing credits? If he plunged into an argument right away, he might end up solidifying his opinion prematurely, in an anxious drive to survive a debate and be “right.”

“No, it’s not too early to talk about it. And besides, I already know what Dennis Farmer will say.” Steve knelt down in front of the Staff Favorites display that faced customers as they entered the store and began removing porn tapes from the shelf labeled “Steven Ray Dark’s Picks.” His friend, Matt Linhart the Prankster, had been in the store last night, stocking this shelf when nobody was looking.

Dennis stuck out his jaw in challenge. “What am I going to say?”

“You’ll say that Malick is just repeating himself, and that’s he’s sailing off into self-indulgent tendencies and fetishes.”

“Be honest. You’ve seen almost every shot in To the Wonder in some previous Terrence Malick movie.” Dennis gestured to the TV screen above the counter, where young Q’orianka Kilcher was, in fact, holding her hands up into the heavens as if to glorify the Great Spirit. And he laughed when the picture shifted to a view from beneath the water, the young native princess seen as a wavering distortion. Sure enough, images almost identical to these had appeared in To the Wonder.

“Look, I’m not going to argue with you,” said Steve. “I haven’t made up my mind about it yet. Remember, I didn’t much like The Tree of Life when I first saw it. Now, it’s one of my favorites.”

“I see you haven’t rated To the Wonder yet.” Dennis was looking at the chart on the magnetic chalkboard on the wall behind the cashier. The owner of All-Thumbs kept a list of new theatrical releases on the wall behind the cashier, inviting staff members to post little plastic thumbs-up or thumbs-down magnets. (Nonsensically, you could give a movie “four thumbs up,” as Steve had recently done for Moonrise Kingdom.) Currently, Steve rated From Up on Poppy Hill with 3 ½ up-turned thumbs, and Like Someone in Love with 4, but Trance had one thumb down.

“But,” Dennis continued, “I know what you’ll say. You’ll defend Malick and say that he has no obligation to provide a clear narrative, that he’s more about poetry than prose.”

“Sure,” said Steve. “He’s a poet. His pictures talk to each other, building up associations and suggestions as they go. Water, curtains, horses—they’re all telling us something about the characters and the questions. When we see Rachel McAdams fenced in which a restless horse, well, the implication is obvious. But still — this is narrative poetry. And the plot points are obvious, aren’t they? Guy meets girl. Guy falls in love with girl. Guy falls out of love with girl, and into love with somebody else. First Girl leaves. Second girl doesn’t work out. Etcetera, etcetera.”

“Don’t forget the priest,” said Dennis, “who’s there to explain what all of this has to do with Christianity.”

“Or it could be the other way around. Maybe the Christianity stuff is there to help us have perspective on romantic love. The two conflicts are closely related, but it’s up to us to think about the correlation. That’s the poetry of it.”

“You didn’t find that religious stuff heavy-handed? Did you see Pastor Bruce trying to follow the first rule of Sight Club after the movie?” Dennis was talking about the chaplain from the college up the road. The only religious member of Sight Club, Bruce Overman was a Malick fanatic who acted like The New World and The Tree of Life existed in some lofty realm above the whole history of cinema, primarily because of the number of scriptures he could connect, directly or indirectly, to scenes in the movie. “How many times will he mention The Book of Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes next time we see him?”

“Well, can you blame him? Malick packs this movie with church scenes, and Javier Bardem’s character can’t stop talking about God.”

“… like somebody who’s watched too much Bergman be. If I have to watch somebody brooding about the absence of God, I’ll watch Winter Light or The Seventh Seal… or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest instead. At least those priests felt like complex characters. Do you even remember this priest’s name?”

“Quintana.”

“Oh, shut up. You got that from the end credits. None of Malick’s characters have names that stick. He doesn’t care.”

“Don’t change the subject. You were accusing Malick of abandoning narrative. But I just summarized the story for you. Malick doesn’t eschew plot.”

“Did you just use the word eschew in a sentence?” Adopting his best Samuel Jackson impression, Dennis shouted, “Check out the big brain on Brad!” He pretended to be interested in free passes to an upcoming screening of The Big Wedding .

Steve didn’t answer, busy lining up a new selection of films on his Favorites shelf — films that reminded him of Terrence Malick’s style. He wondered if anyone would notice. His collection included The Double Life of Veronique by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Planet Earth documentary series; Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Criterion’s anthology of Stan Brakhage films; and his favorite, a film that hardly anybody had seen, but which haunted him all the time — Lucky Life, by Lee Isaac Chung. It was a film about savoring life and struggling with the death of a loved one. It was a film about failing hopes. Even though it was made before The Tree of Life, viewers were likely to think that Malick’s movie had inspired it.

“So, in short,” Steve said, “you dislike To the Wonder because it’s full of shots that look like shots from previous Malick films.”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, did anybody complain about Van Gogh because he liked to paint haystacks?”

“Aha!” said Dennis triumphantly. “So, you read Michael Koresky’s review too, huh? He’s a good writer, but didn’t he sound defensive to you this time? The way he just brushed off valid complaints? It’s one thing if a painter likes to paint still-life with similar subjects. It’s another thing if a filmmaker’s characters start blurring into one character, repeating the same gestures and dances and expressions. And why must the voice-overs all sound the same? Wouldn’t they be stronger, serve Malick’s purposes better, if they had the particularity of actual people? Or is he just belaboring the point that we’re all connected, all one human soul?”

Steven shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. What’s wrong with that?”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong. I don’t believe for a moment that if we could hear each other’s interior monologues they’d be as bland as bad freshman-level poetry. And speaking of bland… how about Ben Affleck? He’s a total blank, the least interesting figure in any of Malick’s movies.”

“He’s playing somebody who feels blank, who is losing faith and losing love.”

“He’s acting like somebody who’s losing faith in his director, Steve. And tell me this — if Malick wants us to believe in his vision, why cast famous and glamorous celebrities and then surround them with unknowns and non-actors? That becomes distracting to me.”

Steve glanced up at the screen, where Colin Farrell’s John Smith was being reprimanded by his superior officer in The New World. “I thought Colin Farrell was totally convincing in The New World.

“Fair enough, but that’s an actor’s actor playing a fully-developed character. Ben Affleck is no Colin Farrell. He’s no Brad Pitt, either.”

“Okay, I kind of agree with you about Affleck. But can’t you give Malick points for daring to take a different path, for breaking new ground? Are you really going to fault him if his explorations have the awkwardness of somebody developing a new form of cinematic expression? Someday, people will point to these films as trailblazing. Some already are. Maybe someday somebody will do what he’s doing better. But right now, I love how he’s fusing imagery and music and sounds and silences with such playfulness and spontaneity.”

A shadow in the doorway turned them to see another predictable visitor — Amy Wilbur, a tall, sullen Sight Club member who looked like a sitcom’s Sexy Nerd Girl. If this movie shop were a series, Steve had already decided, Amy would be played by Aubrey Plaza, Dennis would be played by a red-headed Topher Grace, and… well… if he could cast himself, he’d probably pick the other Affleck brother.

“Okay, the cone of silence has been lifted!” Amy declared. “I can unleash my frustrations! Ready? Let’s begin. Bring out your Bechdel Tester! What does To the Wonder tell us about how Terrence Malick views women?”

“Uh oh,” said Dennis, but he was clearly excited. He was married with three children, but around Amy he acted like a college kid with a crush.

“Let’s start with Dark-haired What’s-Her-Name,” said Amy. “Olga, right?”

“Olga’s the actress,” said Steve. “You mean Marina.”

“Olga’s sexy! Olga’s light as air! She doesn’t walk… she dances! She exists for Ben-a-fleck’s pleasure!” Amy said “Ben Affleck” as if it was one word of three syllables, emphasis on the first and third. Like Obi-wan.

“And when he stops paying attention to her, she wilts like a flower.” Amy sprawled on the floor, very much to Dennis’s pleasure. “She writhes and aches, and Malick even dares to suggest that she’s fantasizing. Ooooh, Ben-a-fleck. Ben-a-fleck!” She put her hands between her legs.

“Not only that,” said Dennis, piling on, “but she doesn’t get much of a story. Ben Affleck’s character gets a story about doing some kind of world-poisoning work that can only be stopped by Erin Brockovich. But there’s no Erin Brockovich in Malick’s world… only dancing fairy queens.”

“Come on. Olga’s… I mean, Marina’s got a story,” said Steve. But already he knew he was on shaky ground. Before he could stop himself, he said, “She has a daughter.”

“Oh, that’s her story?” raged Amy. “That’s her character? She has a daughter? How 1955 of you, Steve. Her whole purpose in life is to have Ben-a-fleck’s love. Also, notice this: When Benn-a-fleck falls for somebody else, the scenes are slow and luxurious and romantic and filled with delicious angst. He and Rachel McNotebook even get a sexy scene together, with billowing bed-sheets and tenderness. Their affair is sensual. But what happens when Olga’s attention strays from holy monogamy? What happens when she’s drawn to somebody else? That’s portrayed like some dark descent into hell. Her seducer is bony and reptilian and clearly devilish. When he takes off his shirt, she’s excited about his tattoo — a skull in a spider-web. Ben-a-fleck gets to have a playful affair, a romp, and then he broods about it. But Olga’s affair is about screwing. It’s an abomination.” She pounded on the lid of the gumball machine. “That’s. Not. Fair.”

Dennis applauded, and she made a sweeping bow.

“And don’t even get me started about that ridiculous woman who wants to draw Olga over to the dark side.” She held out her hand like Darth Vader calling to Luke Skywalker. “Run away. Be free. Do what you want. The girl’s like a villain from a Sunday school skit.”

I’m a nihilist,” said Dennis in a German accent. “I believe in nothing!

“Exactly,” said Amy. “Am I right?”

The store was quiet now except for the sparrows chirping up a storm in the maple tree outside the front door. Carmine ignored them, licking her paw like a feline expert on etiquette.

In walked Marcus Clark with a large box. The boss was a big man, with long arms like cranes that carried a stack of heavy cardboard boxes. “New releases here, and a jackpot of used DVDs from the latest Blockbuster closedown. Let’s get ‘em out, price them, label ‘em, and start selling them in Previously Viewed.” He glanced up at the screen. “What’s this, Steve? A new release? A hot-seller? You can watch this on your own time. These screens are for the customers.”

“We haven’t had any real customers yet, boss. Just these idiots.” Steve stepped behind the counter as Marcus tore into the first box with a box cutter. The noise sent Carmine leaping from the chair.

“Put on Argo, if you want something artsy,” Marcus said. “That’s a hot new release. People will actually rent that.” He pried up the flaps of the box. “So, what did the Sight Club think of To the Wonder?”

Steve scowled at Dennis, who shrugged and turned to Amy, who raised her hands in exasperation. “We had one walkout,” she said. “Dennis and I sat through it feeling like we were having Tree of Life déjà vu. But then there’s Steve.”

“Steve,” said Dennis, “had a religious experience, didn’t you, Steve?”

The Tree of Life was about death and loss and trying to believe in God,” said Steve. “To the Wonder is about something else entirely.”

“It’s about fidelity, infidelity, and trying to believe in God,” said Dennis. “To the Wonder is The New World all over again. But without interesting characters. A decent man falls for a good woman, then lets his attention wander to some other ambition, and then tries to return to his first love. But it’s too late, things are already too screwed up. ‘Did you find your Indies, John?’

Amy agreed. “Olga and her daughter respond to America with the same idealism that we hear whenever characters in The New World set foot in some new culture.”

Marcus’s brow furrowed far up into his baldness, and he scowled beneath his grey broom of a mustache. He looked like he wished he hadn’t asked. Then he took a couple of boxes and walked back through the FOREIGN section and through a door to his office.

Steve grimaced. The boss was still in a foul mood. He had been all week. Roger Ebert had died a few days earlier, casting a pall over the whole store and becoming the dominant subject of conversation. The store was named for Ebert’s famous way of rating movies, and Clark slipped a brief excerpt from every Roger Ebert movie review inside the plastic cover that particular film. Soon, they would run out of reviews, and the store — if it even still existed in six months — would feel more and more like a shrine to Ebert, to home video rentals, to browsing, to the days when they actually discussed what to watch tonight and what they watched last night. Most importantly, this was a place where customers asked about movies, learned things, got caught up in discussions, and were often persuaded to try something unusual.

Argo,” Dennis groaned. “They say it’s the Best Picture of 2012.”

As passionate Oscar-haters, all three of them uttered expletives.

“Name one person you know who’s said, ‘I can’t wait to add Argo to my collection!’” said Dennis.

“Name one person who thinks the Criterion Collection is likely to pick up it up as ‘an important film,’” said Steve.

“Name one actress from Argo,” said Amy.

“Well, at least Ben Affleck gets to play a character in it,” shrugged Dennis. “He sure doesn’t in To the Wonder.”

Steve sighed, inattentively scanning the New Releases display to make sure the titles were arranged alphabetically. “I suppose you have a point there.”

Dennis was delighted to have scored a point. He reached out his hand and laughed wickedly. “Join me and together we will rule the galaxy.

As if on queue, Bruce wandered in. He too looked as if a costume designer had set him up. He wore his predictably conservative patterned sweater and scarf, and a long dark overcoat as if he was an angel from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. “Still haven’t rated last night’s movie?” he said, pausing at the counter to examine the chalkboard. “Then maybe I’m not too late to influence your decision.”

“Don’t you have a baptism to perform or something?” Amy snarked from the COMEDY section.

Bruce laughed unconvincingly. “I don’t baptize anybody, Amy. I’m not a pastor or a priest. I’m a chaplain. I speak in the chapel. I lead prayers. I listen to people who need a listener. I offer encouragement.”

“I need encouragement,” she barked back. “Maybe even some prayer. That movie last night made me angry. There’s just so much that never gets explained. Like… what is wrong with Ben-a-fleck that he can’t make up his mind? What is wrong with Olga that she’d move herself and her daughter when everything’s uncertain?” She began dancing on her tiptoes and twirling through the aisles. “What happens to her at the end? Why in the world is she attracted to that creepy guy with the death tattoos?”

“You’re not the only one who’s angry,” said Dennis. “Have you read the review at MUBI by Darren Hughes? I laughed out loud when he pointed out that the janitor fulfills that ‘magic Negro’ stereotype. I’d been thinking the very same thing. I kept waiting for that character to touch the window and say, ‘Feel the sunlight? I call it… the Shinin’!’ Maybe he could help the priest with his golf game.”

“So,” said Dennis, “how hath God rated To the Wonder, Pastor Bruce? He must have liked how much the characters talked about him.”

And so, as predicted, Bruce began to preach at length about how Terrence Malick films give us the natural world in a way that recalls the Psalms. Malick, he said, shows us nature as if it is a form of music composed by God, and that by attending to beauty, we can become restored, healthy, and whole. He quoted several psalms, as expected, and pointed out connections to The Brothers Karamazov, as if he had come up with that correlation on his own. (In fact, the film’s credits had called the movie a “Brothers K Production,” and Steve had caught an interview with actress Olga Kurylenko in which she said that Malick had assigned her to read Dostoyevsky in preparation for this role.)

“It’s definitely the most blatantly Christian of Malick’s films,” said Amy. “I just don’t know why he has to preach and stuff so much religion in it.”

“Because,” said Steve, surprising himself, “if you believe what Malick believes, then there’s no separation between religion and the rest of life.”

Bruce’s fat-caterpillar eyebrows jumped.

“In Malick’s view, you can’t stuff Christianity into a movie any more than you can stuff light into a photograph. He sees through Christian lenses, and so everything is suffused with God’s glory. Even if To the Wonder didn’t have a priest in it, it would still be all about faith. All that stuff at Mont Saint Michel… that’s a religious place, and a landscape that begs to be taken as a spiritual metaphor. You can climb those paths through tradition and history and religion and sacred expression and almost touch the heavens. Or, you can walk the other way, out into the open, into the gray, where everything loses definition, and where the ground eventually becomes quicksand and the tide comes rushing in. I’ve been there. I’ve walked in that courtyard. I’ve watched the tide rush in across that long flat landscape. The whole place seems… designed to mean things. I think Malick’s one of those believers who wants us to see that everything in the world means something. Everything’s telling us about God, either by fulfilling what God wanted it to be and do… or by resisting what God wanted and thus creating a shadow that speaks of God’s absence.”

Dennis and Amy stared at Steve in surprise. Bruce looked like he’d just spotted a tongue of flame burning over Steve’s head, and he was gaping in delight.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Steve added. “I’m not saying I believe in God. I’m just saying… that kind of vision appeals to me. It’s more attractive than… I don’t know… a faith where you pray and you win a football championship. Or one in which you single out who the bad guys are and march out to war in God’s name.”

“Freeeee-dom!” Dennis roared, holding up an invisible sword.

“And let me add,” Steve continued, “that I don’t think Malick is preaching, Amy. I think he’s asking. Even the most religious character is deeply troubled and looking for answer.”

I have climbed highest mountains…” That was Bruce, bursting into song. “I have run through the fields… only to be with you. But I still… haven’t found… what I’m looking for.

“Oh, God,” groaned Dennis. “He’s right. The whole thing is a U2 music video.”

“Well,” said Amy, “Malick certainly loves to send his women running through the fields.”

As if to celebrate this moment, a young girl twirling in what appeared to be an Easter dress came dancing into the store, scaring the cat, and spinning into the FAMILY section. Her mother, a tall and strikingly beautiful woman came in after her. The Sight Club watched as the mother joined her daughter, took her hands and danced her in a circle, caught her up in her arms, and then knelt down in front of the film shelves. The girl snatched up a copy of John Sayles’ movie The Secret of Roan Inish. “This one again!” she exclaimed.

Nobody had to say anything. They were all thinking the same thing. Nevertheless, Bruce said something: “Is Malick in here with a film crew?”

“Look,” said Dennis. “I know the film is meaningful. And I don’t even mind that Malick uses a blatantly religious vocabulary. It’s refreshing to hear Christianity expressed in a way that has nothing to do with some b.s. about a Vatican conspiracy, or magical relics from the Crucifixion, or a marriage that’ll get saved by Jesus. I just find Malick’s increasing redundancy distracting. I miss the days when his characters had distinct voices, and when I thought he might tell a compelling story, or show us something truly surprising.”

Steve turned, reached into the bowl of magnetic symbols, and posted three “thumbs up” magnets beside the title TO THE WONDER in the column marked STEVE. “There. Since Amy has a good point about the female characters… I’m withholding one whole thumb. Happy? To the Wonder is worth seeing. But maybe it’s not quite a triumph. Quote, Steven Ray Dark, Sight Club.”

Just then, Marcus Clark came out of the office holding up his iPad. With deep gravity, he announced, “Guys… I’ve got something.”

Fellas,” whispered Dennis, quoting from The Hudsucker Proxy, “I… got something.”

“Roger Ebert’s last review. It’s been published. It’s a review of To the Wonder.”

Amy came up to the counter, pressing in between Dennis and Bruce, as Marcus stepped behind the counter and began to read.

As he read Ebert’s review, Steve noticed how the bright sunlight filled All-Thumbs Video with a radiance that felt almost otherworldly. The words felt weighty, perhaps because they were, for this small audience, priceless. This was the last time they would hear a newly published review from the critic they had all admired since childhood, the undisputed master of American film criticism.

It wasn’t that Roger Ebert was the most scholarly or even the best writer. It was that he had never sounded prideful, never sounded eager to impress, never written with any sense of inappropriate authority, and sounded, above all, like a teacher eager to draw others into the wonder that he experienced so vividly — perhaps more vividly — year after year after year.

As Clark read the review aloud, his throat tightened and he paused, brushing at his damp cheekbones with his knuckles. Steve turned away, strangely uncomfortable at seeing his tough-as-nails boss so openly emotional. He glanced at the framed, signed portrait of Ebert on the wall. Roger had written, “For Marcus, movie lover, Roger Ebert, June 10, 1996.” Ebert had visited the store during the Seattle International Film Festival that year.

Marcus continued reading. “’Well,’ I asked myself, ‘why not?’ Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out?” He stopped, grabbed a tissue from a box below the counter, and blew his nose into it.

As he did, Steve took the iPad and read the last paragraph aloud. It sounded like more than the conclusion of a review. It sounded like the last line of a lifetime.

There was a long silence.

Carmine was on the windowsill, staring up into the sun at the blur of sparrows in the tree.

On the television screens, a young native princess beckoned to John Smith to follow her into the fields. They all watched as he followed, disappearing into a new world, giving up his cares and ambitions and responsibilities, surrendering to mystery.

“May we interrupt?” The mother and daughter — customers — were at the counter. Much to Steve’s dismay, the mother had put back The Secret of Roan Inish and swapped it out for Tinkerbell: Secret of the Wings.

Steve turned and added another up-turned thumb to the magnetic chalkboard.

Then he winced, took it down, and replaced with a “thumb-sideways” magnet. “Three and a half,” he said. “For Roger.”

-

TO THE WONDER: Some reviews worth reading.

Roger Ebert: http://bit.ly/12E33he
Darren Hughes: http://bit.ly/Vbs1oj
Michael Koresky: http://bit.ly/10n54On
Michael Leary: http://bit.ly/16xApka
Nick Olson: http://bit.ly/ZbssuR
Richard Brody: http://nyr.kr/10PJCCh
Brett McCracken: http://bit.ly/12RWxax
Glenn Kenny: http://on-msn.com/10ZnTVI
Scott Tobias: http://avc.lu/YMNh4m 
Remy Wilkins: http://bit.ly/10QCVhz

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://cinemasights.com/ James Blake Ewing

    I finally caught up with this film and just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed this review. Like a good work of fiction, I think it poses the right questions without stranglehold us into the author’s answer.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Thanks, James. Of course, “the author’s answer” is in a state of flux. That’s why I wrote the scene. I sympathize with all of these characters. They act out aspects of a conversation I’m having with myself as I watch the film.

  • Levi

    This new way of reviewing really works! I like the way you gave each character a somebody in a body, it makes it much easier to appreciate the sometimes complicated opinions of others. Also a heartwarming goodbye to Roger Ebert, Thanks!

  • http://sycrosd4.deviantart.com Tyrone Barnes

    Absolutely ingenius. Siskel and Ebert would both be proud.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Thanks, Tyrone.

  • Joe Ricke

    brilliant

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Thanks, Joe.

  • http://www.rabbitroom.com Pete Peterson

    I swear I had this exact conversation with my wife last night.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Maybe I was listening behind the couch.

  • Anonymous

    a very interesting way to write a review. thank you!

  • Nick O.

    Two of my favorite bits:
    “Did you see Pastor Bruce trying to follow the first rule of Sight Club after the movie?”
    and the SLJ impersonation.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Thanks, Nick!

  • Garrett

    Fantastic use of dialogue to present a film review. I loved it. I hope to see more of these in the future.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Count on it! I’m already playing around with ideas for the next one. Thanks, Garrett.

  • Pingback: Thoughts on 'To the Wonder' | Cinema & New Media Arts

  • Deborah Menning

    You’ve invented a new genre; I like it. Thank you for posting links to all of the reviews. You provided me with great reading throughout this evening. I am now more than anxious to see this film.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      I keep waiting for somebody to say “It’s been done!” and point me to the film critic who’s already doing this. But thanks, Deborah! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://writingbydfault.blogspot.com/ Dan

    I really liked this review. An excellent way to tease out different angles and apparent contradictions. A bold and I’d say successful experiment. Maybe I’m just prejudiced toward narrative, no matter how basic.
    Also, I’m very excited to see this now.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Excellent. That’s what I’d hoped: To raise some questions that trouble me about the film, but to leave people eager to see it. And to have fun. Thanks, Dan.


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