When news of Roger Ebert’s death broke last week, many feared that his final review was his biting critique of The Host. Over the weekend, a far more appropriate swan song was published—and it looks like the beloved film critic went out with his thumb up. Although Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder has divided critics since it debuted on the festival circuit in September, Ebert gave the film three and a half stars. Typical of the egalitarian critic, he focuses on the element of the film most likely to frustrate audiences and offers a personal, relatable defense. Conceding that he felt as if he might be missing something while watching the film, Ebert ultimately commends Malick for leaving so much unsaid, omitting the cursory explanations that so often simplify the moviegoing experience.
As the Chicago Sun-Times notes, it’s fitting that Ebert concluded his career with a review of a Malick film, as he had “great esteem” for the director. Although To the Wonder is only Malick’s sixth film, Ebert found regular occasion to heap great praise upon the director’s work. He included Malick’s two early films (Badlands, Days of Heaven) in his Great Movies series, placed The Tree of Life on his list of the 10 greatest films, and raved about his most neglected effort, The New World. (Curiously, Ebert underestimated The Thin Red Line, Malick’s most ambitious and commercially successful film.)
Encountering To the Wonder as he was confronting mortality, Ebert concluded his review—and his career—on a note of reflective yearning. “There will be many who find To the Wonder elusive and too effervescent,” he wrote. “They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”