May 6 may not immediately mean a great deal to a lot of film fans, but for certain cinephiles it’s the day for making a pilgrimage to the nearest cinema screen to pay homage to a certain Terrence Malick and his latest release, Knight of Cups. This sense of reverence feels strangely apt for Malick, evoking not only the cult mystique that has emerged around his sparse body of work over the last four decades but also his films’ inimitable, ‘spiritual’ quality.
This maverick notion of Malick established itself right away in his career, with his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. Released in 1973 and 1978, they bookended that most seminal of decades, the seventies, when ‘New American Cinema’ was in full flow.
Of Malick’s filmography, these first two works are perhaps the best port-of-call for newcomers as they are wedded most closely to a conventional notion of narrative structure. Both possess linear chronologies and have story-worlds that constitute the entirety of their frameworks. Peer beyond those dramaturgical trappings though and there are more than enough hints of the iconic visual artist and virtuoso impressionist that Malick was to become.
While both films have a story that Malick is clearly invested in telling us – even creating conventional suspense – his use of detached and ironic voiceover creates a different perspective on events. Sissy Spacek’s wide-eyed, feckless overview of the killing spree of Badlands and Linda Manz’s callow, heartbreaking evocation of the halcyonic Days of Heaven are both testimonies designed to decontextualise and transcend the people-politics of the world around them, and to place the narrative events in a wider, eternal tenor. Thus we drift, in both films, from story to fable (almost into the territory of a fairytale) and the onscreen action – far from being diminished by its hazy narration – accrues an even greater, timeless import.
Malick’s hallmark interest in landscape and nature was also at its subtlest peak in his first two works. Although both films seem intrinsically linked to the specificity of their stories’ time and location, they have a remarkably deep and pastoral subtext but without the grandiose exposition of his four later films. And has anyone ever come cinematically closer to conjuring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sense of the “dark fields of the republic” than in Kit and Holly’s early, subversive ‘Babes in the Wood’ existence in Badlands or the mesmeric magic hour sequences of the migrants set against the unending, arcadian backdrop of Days of Heaven?
After his 20-year exile from our screens, Malick showcased a clear transformation in sensibility with his next two films, The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). If you’re looking for Malick at his most emotional, then these are the two for you. They are almost certainly his two most romantic works, functioning as odes to paradises found and lost. They are also each centred on notional Messiah figures (Witt in The Thin Red Line and Pocahontas in The New World), tragically caught up in the colonialist-imperialist machinations of their era.
Gorging on the sentiment of both characters’ saintly example, Malick’s exposition moves exponentially toward the exalted and reverential. Gone are the subtle, secondary narrations of Badlands and Days of Heaven for a more soaring and allusive use of voiceover. At its best, this new conception of voiceover lends greater emotional weight to the drama while also offering a propulsive, poetic accompaniment to the increasingly bold musical choices. In The Thin Red Line, this works best in Witt’s profound early reflection on the death of his mother and her example of ‘calm’ – offering him a lesson in dignity for when he is to be confronted with his own mortality at the story’s end.
In The New World, in a quite staggering, rhapsodic sequence, Malick finds exactly the right imagery and words to portray the schism in colonialist John Smith’s conscience. Flashbacks to Smith with Pocahontas in a natural idyll clash with his present-day acknowledgement that the corruption of the ‘natives’ is now complete when they engage him in mercantile activities. Finally, all of this suddenly transitions to a highly evocative shot of a river at the magic hour as Smith muses on his desire for transcendence, to “start over, exchange this false light for a true one… ”
It’s perhaps in the privileging of music that Malick’s sensibilities are outed most strikingly in his third and fourth films. In fact, one could argue that the biggest players of these two films are Hans Zimmer and the Melanesian Choir in The Thin Red Line and Wagner, Mozart and James Horner in The New World. That’s not to overlook that Malick had already employed highly proficient soundtracks in Badlands and Days of Heaven, but much like with his new approach to narration, Malick was now largely interested in almost the overemphasis of sentiment, akin to opera, rather than creating any oppositional effect.
The reception of Malick’s two most recent films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, has been the most divisive of his career so far – creating the polar faction which exists today of Malick devotees and Malick naysayers. Perhaps more than anything, Malick has become a victim of his own increasing productivity: his first three films were released a whole 26 years apart, his second three films a mere six years apart. Thus his idiosyncracies are no longer novelties but, to some people at least, affectations.
It doesn’t help that Malick has descended ever deeper into a notion of cinema where story is more about sensory ephemera than straightforward narrative. As if to test this credo, the only exposition Malick employs in The Tree of Life is where a middle-aged man simply wakes up one morning, says “no” to the inexorable flux of life and starts to remember, while in To the Wonder, an American man and a European woman conduct a checkered relationship across two continents.
Highlighting the increasing refinement and abstraction of Malick’s craft – if his ‘chorus’ for his first two films is the hazy voiceovers of Spacek and Manz, and for the following two films the emotion and bombast of Zimmer, Horner, Mozart, Wagner et al., in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder it’s Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera. In a mesmeric exposition of pure cinema, the camera’s gaze becomes both a narrative conduit and our guiding spirit. In The Tree of Life it personifies Jack’s (Sean Penn) rapture at his youthful reminiscence, while it’s a form of omniscient sanctity in To the Wonder, offering flashes of divinity amid the geographical and spiritual crises of the three main characters. With Lubezki’s cinematography, these characters devolve into ciphers – transient spectres in Malick’s rhapsody on the transcendent, glorious arena of life around them.
Top 5 Terrence Malick Films
1. Days of Heaven (1978) – Perhaps the picture where Malick came closest to perfecting all his hallmark technical and philosophical proclivities. Visually stunning; a simply timeless, heartbreaking narrative; and in this writer’s opinion, cinema’s greatest exemplar of voiceover.
2. The Tree of Life (2011) – An absolutely staggering evocation of childhood told almost entirely through the sensuality of memory. Malick presents the whole cosmic evolution of love and grace, and yet despite this feel for the epic and the profound, he retains an intimate, heartfelt edge.
3. The New World (2005) – In many ways, more a tone poem or opera than feature film: the Pocahontas legend gets the most lyrical, emotional and rapturous treatment imaginable, scored almost entirely to Wagner and Mozart (and James Horner!).
4. Badlands (1973) – Malick’s first film and by far his tightest exercise in storytelling. His trademarks are already present, from the masterly use of voiceover to the pastoral setting and the staggering central female performance – in this case from Sissy Spacek.
5. The Thin Red Line (1998) – A masterful work featuring moments of jaw-droppingly beautiful storytelling. The Witt characterisation/subplot is a highly moving moral pivot for the narrative, and Malick’s relentless quest to both deglorify and transcend war is noble.