Malick’s America

“In this world, a man, himself, ain’t nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”
“You’re wrong there, I’ve seen another world.”
—The Thin Red Line

There are a number of master filmmakers working today, untouchables you might call them, who continue to make the crème of the crop and whose films are judged not in terms of good or bad but rather by levels of brilliance. Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Spielberg, possibly Tarantino, at one point Francis Ford Coppola, are just a couple names that come to mind. Then there is Terrence Malick who, despite having only four films under his belt and lacking the notoriety of the latter names, is one of the finest, critically acclaimed, and most mysterious American filmmakers alive today.

It’s hard to warrant calling someone a master with such a limited film canon; still few filmmakers are as unique and majestic in their craft as Malick. Jumping in the spotlight with 1973’s Badlands, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque epic starring a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Malick quickly established himself as an up and coming visionary due to his unique visual style, passion for natural settings, and a harsh but honest portrayal of the America way of life, the country’s history, and the stark realities of the “American dream,” a theme that carries on through all his films.

Badlands, which was based on a real life murder account set in the Midwest, is a film that deals with two characters’ boredom with the social realities of the America they live in–the normality of Sheen’s character’s dead-end job, the unfair class infrastructure and finally the desire to escape to the vast open spaces of our country. 

I was recently reminded of Malick, whose movies I revisit at least once a year–his films are a sort of mesmerizing experience that only seem to improve with age–after renting Malick’s recently re-released sophomore film, Days of Heaven. Beautifully restored with time and care by the brilliant people over at the Criterion Collection, the only true bastion of the preservation of cinematic classics on DVD, Heaven is one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. 

Arguably Malick’s most eye opening motion picture to date, Heaven is a film that deals with the American frontier dreams as seen through the eyes of some young, ambitious laborers circa the early 20th century. Richard Gere (quite possibly his only substantial role) stars as a young troublemaker who is forced to flee Chicago after a tussle at his factory job, and moves with his girlfriend and her sister to the Texas panhandle to find work as a farm laborer. While the story involves a vicious love triangle and deals with people who try to take the easy road to fortune and prosperity, it is the film’s visuals, particularly the wide angle shots of the American plains set on a backdrop of dawn/dusk half-light that truly makes this film a masterpiece. Watching the film is like witnessing a Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, or Ansel Adams photograph come alive in brilliant color, accompanied by a moving score.

Few filmmakers rely so heavily on stunning cinematography and the use of au natural setting as a major entity of their work as Malick does time after time. He has been labeled a frontier filmmaker for his fascination with the evolution of this country. His work is often riddled with metaphors and underlying philosophical meanings, a facet of his films that often deters viewers who are quick to label him pretentious. Above all though, his films are visually breathtaking, often working with the finest cinematographers and scouting the most picturesque locations.

By capturing the natural beauty of this country and later with the rest of the world (as seen through the South Pacific Islands of The Thin Red Line), Malick is able to showcase the clashing of people and the environment in a way that few filmmakers have ever done. Days of Heaven is a film about frontier Westward expansion and the greed and corruption that came along with it. The scenes of the laborers working in unity as a sort of machine are visually beautiful thanks to Malick’s unique eye but are also saddening because it shows the fast pace of change and expansion that transformed and in many ways destroyed this country’s natural order.

After Days of Heaven, which was well received, even garnering a controversial Academy Award for cinematography (two notable cinematographers, only one recognized); Malick became a J.D. Salinger-esque recluse, vanishing out of the public’s eye for twenty years. Many speculated that Malick was working on the great American novel; others believed he was writing an epic screenplay, some even speculated that he had died. It wasn’t until 1997 that he made his highly anticipated return in the form of The Thin Red Line, an epic Asia-Pacific theatre World War II film with a brilliant cast of notable and up and coming actors. Loosely based on the novel of the same name (supposedly a much longer, “true to the book” cut of the film is out there with narration by Billy Bob Thornton), Line chronicles the U.S. army’s takeover of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific during the war with Japan. Paired with Spielberg’s brutal but mesmerizing Saving Private Ryan (released curiously enough around the same time), this is the finest World War II film ever made. 
While not set on U.S. soil like his two prior films, Line is as much a film about America as it is about ‘the War.’ The many characters featured in the film each cling to the memories of the comfortable America they have in the back of their minds while the realities and chaos of the war around them provide a harsh wakeup call to the fact that the world is lot bigger than the their innocent small town life they’ve come to know. A couple soldiers, particularly Private Witt (played wonderfully by future Jesus Christ superstar, Jim Caviezel), see the grandeur and beauty of the world that they are helping to destroy but are slowly sucked back into their mission. Like all his films, Malick uses images of the vast natural surroundings to show serenity, beauty and the pulsing lifeline of our planet and then depicts its vulnerability through the mayhem of war and man’s devastating footprints. Few films are as affective at showing the absurd, chaotic, and futile nature of war than The Thin Red Line

In 2005 Malick returned to a script that he had been working on since the 70s (possibly what he was toying with during his twenty-year hiatus) about the landing at Jamestown and America’s “unofficial” conception. People were quick to label The New World a retelling of the Pocahontas and John Smith story, sans talking raccoons and boisterous river canoe songs, when in reality (again like all Malick films) there was more to the film than just the love story. 

The New World is in many ways an extension of all of Malick’s previous works and is also a precursor to the American theme he’s worked with throughout his career. The film chronicles America’s first hour and the slow, inevitable downward spiral that followed. It deals with expansion and the birth of modern civilization paired with the slow destruction of the preexistent natural order. The film’s gorgeous opening five minutes set to the stirring string and horn crescendo of Wagner’s beautiful “Vorspiel Prelude” from Das Rheingold is a scene that, in the same vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the perfect pairing of imagery and sound. 

The films of Terrence Malick are not for everyone. His use of long shots, voice-over narration, and scripts that dabble in philosophical prose often leave viewers befuddled. Despite casting big names like Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Sean Penn, George Clooney etc, his movies are not your average popcorn epics. I remember attending an opening night screening of The New World with a group of college friends and being the only one to leave the theater even remotely satisfied (they hated it that much). Still he is an important filmmaker who continues to create unique movies that stand alone, and with a new project, the mysterious The Tree of Life, on the horizon, it’s evident that Malick is eager to contribute more to the world of cinema.