Terrence Malick: A Career Report Card
While the 69th Venice International Film Festival was dominated by the buzz surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, there was no short supply of anticipation leading up to the premiere of acclaimed director Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. What is interesting about Malick is that he earned his mythic status largely through inactivity, having only directed a handful of films in 40 years and shunning the spotlight all together. However, does Terrence Malick deserve to be held in such high regard based on the quality of his work? Let’s take a look back at his celebrated career and decide.
1. Badlands (1973)
The best thing about Terrence Malick’s tightly scripted and gorgeously photographed debut is its simplicity. Absent of all the hardened, edgy excesses of 70’s cinema, Badlands is a small, well-structured, and unbiased account of a young couple’s (Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek) murdering spree in the 1950’s Midwest. While the subject matter is highly charged, Malick dials it back, letting his story unfold in a leisurely manner. This, coupled with Spacek’s soothing, matter-of-fact narration, make the proceedings equal parts enchanting and horrifying. Easily Malick’s most accessible and entertaining effort, Badlands showcases how far young filmmakers can go if they have a vision. Grade: A-
2. Days of Heaven (1978)
With Days Of Heaven, Malick forever reshaped his artistic philosophy, and some would argue not for the better. Initially, the film was envisioned as a straight-forward, period piece about two poor farmhands’ (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams) attempt to steal from a wealthy landowner (Sam Shepard). In the near three-year long editing process, Malick took a hatchet to the film, reshuffling sequences and stripping out huge chunks of dialogue in favor of Linda Manz’s informal narration. The result was a mixed bag. While the images are breathtaking (most of the film was shot around “magic hour”, a.k.a dusk), characterization is flat with Brooke Adams’ Abby being reduced to a walking plot device. Malick also fails to establish any kind of narrative fluidity, with the abrupt cuts and sudden inserts being far too jarring at times. Nevertheless, Malick should be commended for thinking outside the box. Lord knows, we need more risk takers in Hollywood, especially these days. Grade: B-
3. The Thin Red Line (1998)
After a 20-year absence, the reclusive director returned with this cerebral WWII epic centering around the Battle of Guadalcanal. Rather than focus on combat and strategy, Malick turns to the soldiers themselves and how the war impacts their physical and emotional being. Malick’s soldiers are not the kind of chest-thumping Neanderthals seen in those mindless 80’s action flicks. They are real people with hopes, fears, courage, and conflict. Unfortunately, this ensemble piece is so bloated and expansive that many characters we come to care about (i.e. Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin) get lost in the mix. Despite this, The Thin Red Line remains a compelling and original work. A special note to John Toll, who should have taken home the Oscar for his lush, vibrant cinematography. Grade: B
4. The New World (2005)
Very much a companion film to The Thin Red Line in terms of style and tone, The New World explores the founding of Jamestown, Virginia and the relationship between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). The New World is elevated by a pair of solid performances from Christian Bale and Q’orianka Kilcher, who, at only 14 years old, displays remarkable poise. As to be expected from a meticulous craftsman like Malick, the attention to detail in the production design is absolutely extraordinary, with the near-perfect recreation of the Jamestown settlement being a highlight. It’s films like this that prove you do not need a pair of 3-D glasses to have a transportive experience. However, Malick himself seems to get caught up in the beautiful world he created, so much so that he loses his grip on the story. There are just too many sequences of actors roaming about that are neither deep nor revelatory. This makes the film taxing and, at times, infuriating to watch. Grade: C+
5. The Tree of Life (2011)
The Tree of Life has a reputation for being this tremendously deep, moving, and philosophical odyssey. Upon repeated viewings, one realizes how routine it is. In a nutshell, the story follows a middle age man (Sean Penn) as he reflects back on his childhood with his brutish, but loving, father (Brad Pitt). That’s about it. To cover up the film’s shallow premise, Malick opens his old bag of tricks using devices like gorgeous inserts of nature, ambiguous narration, and a montage on the creation of Earth (meant to show how insignificant we all are or something like that). However, after Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, there’s a general sense of been there, done that. Grade: B-
Though flawed to certain degrees, Terrence Malick’s films are all scrupulously detailed and uniquely his own. Beginning with Days of Heaven, the director has adopted a very specific style which includes poetic images, preachy narration, and heavy symbolism. Based on the reviews from Venice, To the Wonder appears to follows this model to a tee. However, in having such a strong trademark, Malick runs the risk of becoming a parody of himself if he doesn’t branch out. He did it once with Days of Heaven. Only time will tell if he is willing or able to do it again. With two films currently in production, we will not have to wait long to see.
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