Roger Ebert’s Last Review: A Thoughtful Look At ‘To The Wonder’

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

Roger Ebert loved movies and he loved to write. Up to the last days of his life, he kept up a busy schedule as a writer, and what proved to be his last review gave him a chance to discuss the work of a filmmaker he especially admired.

On Saturday, Roger Ebert's web site and the Chicago Sun-Times published a review of "To The Wonder," the new film from director Terrence Malick, which opens in limited release on April 12. It was the last review Ebert submitted to his editors before his passing on Thursday, and while it's difficult to point to a "typical" Ebert review, given the wide range of films and subjects he covered, the review certainly points to many of Ebert's hallmarks – it deals with emotion as much as technique, and turns introspective as he talks about a movie where much seems to lurk beneath the surface.

In the first half of the review, Ebert focuses primarily on the story, and the thoughts and interaction of the characters. In "To The Wonder," Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko play Neil and Marina, a couple who fall in love in France, and find their lives and feelings changing when they settle in Neil's home town in Oklahoma, where the isolation of the vast landscape has an impact on their relationship.

As the review goes on, though, Ebert seems to revel in exploring the deeper aspects of Malick's film. His thoughts touch on his knowledge and appreciation of movie history ("Although he uses established stars, Malick employs them in the sense that the French director Robert Bresson intended when he called actors 'models.' Ben Affleck here isn’t the star of 'Argo' but a man, often silent, intoxicated by love and then by loss"), his appreciation of Malick's style and approach ("A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision"), and even philosophy as reflected through the medium of film ("Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first pace?").

Chance was probably what determined that "To The Wonder" would be the last film Ebert would review, but it's worth noting he had a great admiration for Terrence Malick's work. Ebert gave a four-star rave to Malick's 2011 film "The Tree Of Life," and in his review, he declared, "I don't know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of 'The Tree of Life' reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick's gift, it would look so much like this." Ebert also gave four stars to Malick's 1973 debut feature "Badlands" and his 2006 picture "The New World," and he revisited 1978's "Days Of Heaven" for one of his "Great Movies" essays in 1997.

While Malick hasn't commented on Ebert's review or the unique spot his new film holds in Ebert's body of criticism, he did release a statement declaring he was "very sorry to hear of Mr. Ebert’s death and remembers him, with deep gratitude, as a man of kindness and generosity, encouraging to all, a loving man whose goodness will not be forgotten by those whose lives he touched."

On the day of his death, one of Ebert's editors, Jim Emerson, wrote a memorial essay in which he mentioned that not long after submitting the "To The Wonder" review, Ebert sent him an e-mail, concerned that his pain medication may have effected the quality of his work. ""JIm, old friend, I'm in bad shape," it read. "I type on my lap in a hospital bed. I'm on pain meds. Did the review of 'To the Wonder' make sense e to you? Such a strange movie." Judging from the review, Ebert's concerns seemed groundless; it was just the sort of review only Ebert could have written.

Ebert's funeral was held Monday morning at 10 a.m. at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, and was open to the public. A long line of admirers formed in front of the church hours before services began, braving a rainy morning to pay their respects along with the noted critic's family and friends.

See the trailer for 'To the Wonder':