The Films of Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is one of the enigmas of the cinema. He made two masterpieces in the 70s before disappearing for 20 years. In 1998, he returned to filmmaking with that other WWII film. Then in 2005, he made another film. So Terrence Malick is considered a genius filmmaker even though he's only made 4 films? Yep. They must be really good then, right? Let's find out.

Badlands (1973)

Badlands is praised mainly because of its oblique storytelling and its beautiful cinematography. And yes, these are two things that stand out when watching the film. Malick does have a way of shooting characters against nature or, rather, framing the characters so we can understand their relationship to nature, that is rather fascinating. I don't know how much it helps his movies that they focus sometimes more on the scenery than the characters but it does make him quite an unique filmmaker. Regarding the storytelling, well, Malick is a big fan of narration. He uses it to comment on the actions on-screen. Sissy Spacek's narration is actually a reason why the film works. Her character in the film is either a.) dumb or b.) extremely out of it, and the narration reflects that. Her voice and intonation suggest a character who is too young to truly absorb what she is witnessing. And, ultimately, that's what resonates most in this film. These are just two young kids. What's troubling (as a viewer) is how Malick keeps his characters' emotions at arm's length. This is probably to illustrate the distance between the acts that Kit and Holly are committing and what they felt but I didn't really like it. That's probably my biggest problem with the film.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven is somehow even more beautiful than Badlands. More beautiful, yes, and better in just about every single way. And, yet, this film is even more oblique than the previous one. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that I don't think Malick can tell very compelling stories. However, he makes this up by having every single shot be incredibly beautiful. The images sometimes speak for themselves. Just thinking of the image of the house in the distance with nothing surrounding it is getting the cinephile in me all riled up. Once again, there is narration by a little girl although this time it's somehow even more offhand and strange. It doesn't help that she has that accent though after a while I found it sort of endearing. Linda's narration is more interesting than Holly's from Badlands but it feels even more detached as if she's commenting on events that happened long ago. Since the film is told through her eyes, the muted emotions of a lot of the other characters sort of make sense though it doesn't really make it any more enjoyable. It just explains a lot. Thinking about the film, I'd say my biggest complaint, and I'd say the same for Badlands, is that I just don't care. Bad things happen to people who don't really deserve them and it's all beautiful and crap but so what? There is absolutely no emotional resonance here. His films may be technical masterpieces and he may be good at setting a particular mood but I'm beginning to think that I'll admire Malick more than actually like him.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Now, I must anger the three of you who actually bother to read this. I like Saving Private Ryan more than this film. Booyah! Anyway, Malick's films have actually gotten better and better as I keep going through them but even the level of improvement found here is unexpected. Once again, Malick is more interested in developing a mood than telling a traditional story which I found interesting in his earlier films but not entirely satisfying. However, it appear something clicked. Perhaps it was the marriage of his style with something a little more familiar like say, uh, war, that got me into it; I can't really say. What I can say, though, is that the battle scenes in this film are as thrilling if not more than the ones that can be found in that other 1998 war film. Malick's soldiers crawl through the grass in desperation as they're picked off by Japanese gunmen who have a bunker on top of a hill which by the end of the set piece we will know like the back of our hands. This goes on for at least a third of the film and yet I was never bored. In fact, I was thrilled at the fantastic direction and cinematography. The one big quibble I have with the film is the narration which is kind of strange since I've enjoyed it in previous films. Here, it struck me as being a little too misplaced. It didn't really feel organic to the characters who were delivering it. During the narration, the characters became Malick's mouthpieces. However, this is a very minor flaw and I did enjoy the narration (sorta) for the most of the part even though I chuckled at the fact that they all had the same kind of poetic thoughts.

The New World (2005)

After watching Pocahontas a couple of weeks back, I got really excited to watch if only to see what Malick could do with the material. Well, I more or less got what I wanted. That sense of curiosity that I loved in Pocahontas is here in spades. The scenes with John Smith and ? (she is never named) have an incredible sense of tenderness. They get to know each other unencumbered by anything else. It's pretty fantastic stuff for the most part with awesome cinematography and probably my favorite use of narration in a Malick film so far. While all the stuff in Amerikkka is gold, the film truly reaches brilliance when it goes over to England. It's at this point that we see everything through Pocahontas' eyes. For her, this world is new and Malick regards it with the same kind of playful curiosity that he lent the scenes in America. Plus the final scene is sublime.

Terrence Malick films ranked:

1. The New World ★★★1/2
2. The Thin Red Line ★★★1/2
3. Days of Heaven ★★★
4. Badlands ★★1/2

1 comment:

sean said...

Well, I'm glad you liked The New World.