The notion of the auteur theory exists for filmmakers like Terrence Malick. You don’t even have to watch a Malick movie to know you’re watching a Malick movie. Choose most any still shot from his six feature films, and you’ll immediately recognize who crafted it. Hear a clip from one of his films – the obscure classical movement, the delicate sound of nature in work, the gentle narration – and you’ll be aware of its creator.
In short, Terrence Malick’s uniquely unparalleled vision, mixed with his J.D. Salinger-like reclusiveness, makes him one of the most enigmatic artists currently flexing his craft. And, best to get this out of the way now, I dig the man’s vision. I enjoy his shifting narratives, his puzzling structures, his ceaseless narration, his visual poetry. When I recently reviewed Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, I noted that his films have a way of making us uncomfortable. They abandon the three act structure we’re all used to, and adopt an idea all their own. I respect that. I’m inspired by that. Which is about all I can think to ask from a filmmaker.
I’m not sure what motivated Malick to base his first film on teenage serial killer Charles Starkweather, who famously murdered 10 people during a two-month road trip in the Midwest. Perhaps it was the overall mysticism surrounding Starkweather’s motivations – the James Dean ideation, the desire to impress a young love, the bizarre thirst for blood. Whatever Malick’s inspirations, he took a deeply disturbing wave of crime and transformed it into a lyrical work of art. A film that, and I feel this is inarguable, stands as one of the finest debut features for any filmmaker in cinematic history.
There’s a confidence to Badlands that consequently gives it the look and feel of a seasoned pro. Stepping effortlessly into the role of Kit Carruthers, Martin Sheen personifies Starkweather’s sensibilities, while making the character all his own. He murders hastily, instinctually, prematurely, without much care as to the repercussions. By himself, Kit would be a monster that the audience could easily disregard, but because Malick juxtaposes Kit’s psychosis with the tenderness and false hope of his lover, Holly (Sissy Spacek), Badlands is given a unique sense of depth and humanity. A kind of humanity that continues to haunt, inspire and puzzle, all these decades later. A
Days of Heaven (1978)
After a heated argument leads to murder, Chicago steel worker Bill (Richard Gere) flees with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) to Texas, where they are soon hired to work on a large wheat farm. To avert controversy, Bill and Abby say they are siblings, which causes the farm’s young, shy owner (Sam Shepard) to take a liking to Abby. The Farmer soon relents that he’s terminally ill, and Bill encourages Abby to marry the Farmer as a means of collecting his inheritance.
Now, that’s a love triangle of Shakespearian proportions – one of my absolute favorite tales of turbulent affection ever captured on film. So it speaks very highly for Days of Heaven that its plot comes secondary to its scope.
Simply put, Days of Heaven is one of the best-looking films of all time. Shot almost exclusively during magic hour, the film’s constant, gorgeous natural backlighting acts as the perfect environment for the romantic turmoil in the foreground. With this picture, Malick gently asserted himself as an auteur in search of truth through emotion. Instead of grand monologues, he lets a swarm of locusts say what no film character could possibly articulate. Pain on the surface, with beauty brimming just below. The Malick method at its finest. A
The Thin Red Line (1998)
A few years ago, I wrote an essay in which I compared the power of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan to Malick’s The Thin Red Line. And I wrote it for a few reasons. Mainly, up until drafting that post, I honestly was not aware which film I liked better. They were famously released just months apart, and depicted the same war in very different ways. Perhaps comparing them in the first place wasn’t fair to either film, but those were the notions I wanted to expand upon.
Penning that essay is the reason I write. Through writing, a love was realized, developed and cemented. A love for a film that I now consider to be the finest, most shattering war picture ever made. A love that allowed me to comprehend my full appreciation for such an obscure director. In short, my love for The Thin Red Line is boundless. There isn’t a weak link to be found in the Who’s Who of notable faces from the cast. John Toll’s cinematography is as lyrical as it is conscious, and Hans Zimmer’s score is so iconic that sound bites from it are still being used in film trailers.
There’s nothing I don’t admire about this film. It’s a 171 minute long beautiful mystery that continues to evolve, and never hints at fading away. A+
The New World (2005)
Slightly more obscure in execution than his first three features, The New World is a moody, atmospheric romance that captures one of the most studied failed romances of all time. And, again, this being the transcendental world of Malick, it isn’t so much the love between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) that attracts us, but rather, how the love is achieved. Everything just feels so new. When we watch “The Naturals” watching those three massive ships inch toward the mainland, it feels as though we’re learning about it for the first time. When we watch Smith and Pocahontas (who is amusingly never referred to by her name, until it is changed to “Rebecca”) interact, it isn’t as if they’re discovering love, but rather being overcome with it.
With the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (whose effortless motions and stark images were born to be scrutinized by Malick), composer James Horner (crafting one of the finest movie scores of all time), production designer Jack Fisk and many more, The New World is able to morph preconceptions into revelations. It flows and blossoms seamlessly, never ceasing to desist its emotional complexity.
The final 10 minutes of this film, in which Malick shows Rebecca at her happiest before sealing her fate, all scored perfectly to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” is the most moving thing Malick has ever put on screen. Its physical and emotional beauty continues to bring tears to my eyes. A+
The Tree of Life (2011)
Moving full tilt to the land of purposeful obscurity (where, it appears, his next several projects will remain), The Tree of Life documents a young man’s turbulent upbringing at the hands of his strict father and graceful mother. Before the film’s 20-minute mark, it has traced the confusion of Vietnam-era Middle America, the hustle bustle of the corporate 21st century, the stillness of the 1950s, and, finally, the dawn of time. No small feat, but Malick had grand aspirations here. Whether or not he achieved them is up to the individual watching, but I’ve always considered The Tree of Life to be an epic poem of moving images in which life, youth, and death are reconstructed spectacularly.
It has been said that The Tree of Life is Malick’s most autobiographical film yet. But because the man is so notoriously timid, we only have the notions of other people to go off of. No matter how personal the film is to him, The Tree of Life is an undeniably unique vision. It presents common themes in profound ways, and dares its viewer to ride along. I haven’t a clue what it all means, but The Tree of Life isn’t something that necessarily wants to be solved, but rather, consumed. Consider me completely overcome. A+
To the Wonder (2013)
For me, Malick’s latest visual sonnet is best represented in the still above. To the Wonder is about two people who want to love, but, for reasons unknown to us (and possibly to them), simply cannot. In a way, it’s as if they’re both going in the same direction, but there are miles of space between them. When Neil and Marina are on, everything works. Life makes sense – the space and time and circumstance in which they exist matters none, because they exist together. But when they’re off, life’s off. Everything falters – habits annoy, stepchildren irritate, suburbia suffocates – nothing can be won.
Emotional pain (usually as it relates to love, romantic or otherwise) is a common theme in all of Malick’s films, but I’m not sure I’ve seen him portray it as devastatingly as he does here. But don’t get me wrong, To the Wonder isn’t a film enamored with its own agony. Working with Malick for the third consecutive time, Emmanuel Lubezki redefines how to tell a story with fluid imagery. Nature is as much of a character here as Neil and Marina. A subtle glance is as telling as a verbal lashing out, a sherbet sunset encapsulates a mood, and a stairwell says more about separation than any character possibly can. A-
The Thin Red Line
The New World
The Tree of Life
Days of Heaven
To the Wonder
Just Plain Bad