Few artists have the luxury of being able to make films at their own snail’s pace, and even fewer have this clout on the strength of a small number of films. Terrence Malick’s five, released in ’73, ’78, ’98, ’05, ’11, are not the box-office material that make one a Peter Jackson. (I always wondered at the reason for his 20-year hiatus between the second and third films and can’t help but wonder if Malick was so depressed by ’80s cinema that he swore off filmmaking forever; someday I’ll have to write a blogpost about the evils of ’80s American films.) I think of Malick as a composer of nature’s symphonies. With one exception, nature is the lead character in all his work, through which plotting and the actual characters are filtered to yield an aesthetic that’s pleasing, even exciting, whether you’re inclined to arthouse or not. It was a given that Malick would place in this blogathon of favorite film directors, and here’s how I rank his work.
1. The Tree of Life. 2011. 5 stars. Like Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film attaining heights out of reach to all but the most gifted filmmakers. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. If there ever was a case to be made for religionless Christianity, this is it. It pivots around a man reliving his childhood (in hindsight both wondrous and grim) while reflecting on his own place in the universe (negligible one level, having everything to do with it on another). In particular, grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it’s its conceptual opposite), but something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. It’s an incredible film, with each frame depending on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. And it ends on a spiritual apocalypse that can strike to the heart of even the most unyielding atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss, gelling spendidly with the evolutionary framework of the film. I’ve seen The Tree of Life more than any other Malick film, and have been turned by new surprises each time.
2. Days of Heaven. 1978. 4 ½ stars. Quintessential Malick, gorgeous as it is simple, Days of Heaven preserves a still in every frame that you’d be proud to hang in your living room. As with Tree of Life, it’s the kind of film that takes just the right director to make work. Or least for me, because I’m big on character, and here the characters are kept at arm’s length even by Malick’s standards. Nature is of course the lead in most of his work, but in Days of Heaven the horses, wheat, locusts, and pastures eclipse Bill and Abby to the extent we almost don’t care a whit about their story with the dying farmer, yet remain hooked to the overall tapestry. There’s nothing romantic in this vision: it shows nature like it is, completely indifferent to humanity, a theme strongly revisited in The Thin Red Line. Interesting is that Malick reportedly trashed his own screen-play during the production, deciding instead to allow the actors to improvise and find the story in their own way. And it shows, because nothing feels rehearsed — it’s as if you’re watching something real through a painting come to life.
3. The Thin Red Line. 1998. 4 ½ stars. There are two films I can’t avoid comparing to Saving Private Ryan, a film I never cared for. One is Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, for the suicidal attempt to take the hill; it retains a brutal intensity that Spielberg couldn’t match in the opening act of his overpraised film, much as he tried. The other is Malick’s Thin Red Line, for the time of its release, the same year as Spielberg’s but sadly overshadowed by it. This film laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it’s horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way (as opposed to the manipulative cheap-story way of Saving Private Ryan). I maintain that anti-war films have the strongest difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. Bergman’s Shame, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and Malick’s Thin Red Line are my trilogy of exhibits proving this is possible. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy, and Kubrick did along the ladder of military hierarchy, Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms, finding beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s sheer genius.
4. Badlands. 1973. 4 ½ stars. Released the same year as The Exorcist, Malick’s first film is in every way a ’70s work par excellence, and one that only obliquely distinguishes itself as a Terrence Malick film. That’s not a bad thing: the ’70s were the Golden Age of filmmaking, and Badlands, like so many productions of this era, epitomizes the ideological emptiness of America after Vietnam and social upheaval of the ’60s. Like many artists of the time, Malick takes an amoral stance, refusing to either condemn his delinquent killers or cheer them on as anti-heroes. The visuals of the American Midwest landscape are breathtaking — on this point, the Malickian thumb-prints become evident — but Badlands is the one film on this list where characters don’t play second fiddle to nature. Malick is clearly trying to underscore the way characters react and relate to meaningless violence, and what I find most disturbing about it is the tone of disinterest and nonchalance; the duo don’t relish killing, nor do they murder with any real purpose; it’s just a way of life that came naturally to them given their circumstances. Of the umpteen Bonnie-and-Clyde films, Badlands is my choice, tied with Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise.
5. The New World. 2005. 3 ½ stars. For all its stunning aesthetic, there’s something fundamental about New World that irks me: this isn’t the way I like historicals. I don’t want figures like Pocahontas painted over Terrence Malick style, I want them delivered on a platter of artistic simplicity (as in A Man for all Seasons), induced documentary (as in Gospel According to St. Matthew), or even action-adventure brutality (as in Rob Roy). When nature is the main character — as is almost always the case in a Malick film — it distracts from what an historical epic should be about. Credit must be given for the way New World rescues Pocahontas from sissified Disney versions and portrays the love affair between her and Smith with subtle poetry. Most commendably, this isn’t a slam against the White Man, nor a condescending, racist reverence for fantasy “noble savages” (who must nonetheless be saved by a whitey who grows to loathe himself — per Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, ad nauseum). Objectively, there’s a lot to admire about this film. But I respect it from an emotional distance, because the historical genre is just not one I find suitable for Malick’s style.
Next month: Quentin Tarantino.