In anticipation of 2011 Palme D’Or Tree of Life opening this weekend – I already have a ticket for Saturday, though it seems Fox Searchlight is giving credence to specific showtime, man – I took the opportunity to watch Terrence Malick’s small, but meaty, filmography (4 movies, 9 hours). I will go into detail about each film, but a few things tie the works together and define Malick’s style as an auteur. Many cite his films as poetic, a word overused in art, but here it is best taken literally: Malick’s films are structured and edited as poems, with rhyming images weaving scenes into stanzas. The fact that the films are all visually breathtaking allows for the slow-forming narrative this structure requires, but the gorgeous imagery – at its best – tells the story and defines the characters through their surroundings. The films focus on how a place’s history, culture, and personality affects and forms people, but never in a simple or direct way. He focuses on the intangible with each film, leaving the tangible to our assumptions and imaginations.
Malick’s first feature is by far his most traditional, but also implements many of his signature directorial tactics (languid wide-shot landscapes and personal, slightly abstract voiceover). Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek star as a small-town teenage girl and confident man from the wrong side of the tracks destined for love. After a turn of events with Spacek’s father, played by Warren Oates, their lives and love change forever, sending them on a blood-stained trek across middle-America (think a simple, unaffected Bonnie and Clyde). Badlands is also Malick’s most pop-culture conscious film: the film introduces Sheen as a rough neck James Dean wanna-be, whose charm and dedication almost makes his emotionless violence allowable. Sheen’s character is aware of the Dean comparison and craves it, but he and Spacek also seem to think their lives became a fairy tale when they met: the acts of violence and sweetness are both displayed so matter-of-factly, amplifying Sheen and Spacek’s naivete and detachment from reality. I know that might sounds irritating and bizarre, but Sheen’s quiet charisma and Spacek’s personal exposition as voiceover captivate and engage, lending a playfulness to the film akin to Wong Kar-wai’s charmingly naive criminal characters.
While Badlands‘s cinematography was beautiful and, at times, stunning, Days of Heaven may be the most visually arresting film ever made. With very little dialogue and an enigmatic voiceover from a supporting character, the film relies on images to tell the story: each image invites you into the space and the relationships of the characters, spinning scenes out of connected visuals. That is not to say that the story is bland or abstract; the basic plot is actually rather straightforward – a migrant worker couple see a chance to become wealthy through amoral means, consequences ensue – but Malick renders the intangible emotional textures and transitions in each character delicately with a succession of gorgeous imagery. Though, despite the languid character narratives, Malick steamrolls through the actual meat and potatoes plotpoints, hurrying through each confrontation or turning point to get back to reveling in the emotional turmoil that lead up to and resulted from these moments. With a running time at only ninety minutes these scenes could be longer, as is they are quick and could use more time to gestate. Though, these rhythmic breaks remind us that this film was edited, re-edited, and re-structured for over 2 years. Without these fleeting structural issues Days of Heaven could be a masterpiece: the opening harvest and locust scene are utterly breathtaking, the only film that I could compare it to is There Will Be Blood and they are still worlds apart.
The Thin Red Line is such a simple idea with grand, awe-inspiring execution: a man (Jim Caviezel) among many, deciphering his own understanding of death, fights a battle for a ridge in a foreign land during the largest war the world has seen. But, clocking in at three hours and boasting a cast of most of the finest working actors, The Thin Red Line is a bit of a beast to wrap your head around. Malick’s film presents so many characters, but each draws you in: the voiceover helps invite you into each character’s psyche, but having so many narrative voices does not overwhelm as I expected it to. He initially gives you one trait or motivation for each character and the rest is implied or built upon as they go deeper into battle. As expected, the imagery is utterly breathtaking. The battle for the ridge plays out like a poem: the camera moves gracefully and forcefully, the perfectly framed figures move deeper into the setting, as the place shifts from peaceful and serene to all out carnage, all the while asking us why. Though some think the film is messy and unfocused, I think that is the beauty of it: we do not have a singular focus once the battle begins besides the point of action at any given moment, allowing each character’s actions and emotions in this high pressure situation to reveal their unconscious selves to us, while the time between battles is spent learning how the characters consciously view themselves and their context. It absolutely makes sense that the conflict between Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas largely defines the drama of the first act and a half because they are the commanding officers, they are the characters with lives in their hands. But, Caviezel’s subtler, more philosophical narrative – articulated most fully in two conversations with Sean Penn – carries us through the film, asking us to consider the way these men face death and their responsibilities to one another. The problems with Caviezel’s narrative for me was Malick’s depiction of tribal life as bliss (Caviezel’s idea of heaven): lines like “Kids here never fight” are ignorant and fetishize that way of life. But, in the film’s context – a vast war considered on a large scale but fought among individuals – this frustrating assertion is allowable as a man’s escape from the madness of modern war
Initially there does not seem to be much of a difference between The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, and The New World, but something about Malick’s most recent film simply does not connect. Like the others, this film is stunningly gorgeous in nature and savage when humanity strikes, the narrative uses a poetic structure and abstract voiceover, and the setting largely defines and affects the characters. Perhaps the largest blight on the film is the acting: Colin Farrell’s performance is comprised mostly of sad faces and stubble while Q’orianka Kilcher does not have the chops to engage with a look, despite being enchantingly beautiful. In The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven Gere, Shepard, Caviezel, Penn, and Nolte speak volumes with a look or expression, here there are a plethora of exchanged glances but most land empty and meaningless. The poetic image sequences weave the narrative vessel, but the characters occupying that narrative are empty and uninteresting. Malick’s previous works introduce characters we immediately know or learn and use our assumptions as building blocks, but here the characters go against the grain of what we know of the Smith/Pocahontas story and lean heavily on melodrama that does not connect. Despite fetishizing American indigenous people – “They do not know jealousy”… c’mon – the perspective of the story is startling and refreshing: there is no wink to the history of this fabled story, the characters and viewer are experiencing this New World for the first time. Scenes of British settlers in raw nature and Pocahantas in England are beautiful and layered with emotions, but the actual human interactions seem forced and remain unremarkable. However fascinating it is to see the essence of the American settler and their effect on the native people, the characters of The New World simply do not fill the narrative of breathtaking images with enough substance.