Terrence Malick: A Discourse in the Art of Filmmaking

Films: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups

All art comes from perspective. From within, an artist projects out. Their views of the world, of society, of humanity, of the universe are expressed in the end product. Worthwhile art defies simplistic explanation and interpretation. In the eye of the beholder, it can be appreciated for what it is or it can be revered for all it represents. Film is a medium that invites a complex approach, but which many filmmakers find it difficult to master. Writer/Director Terrence Malick is one of those filmmakers whose depth and artistry shows through in his films, which are both thought provoking and renowned for their stunning visual imagery.

In the mid-1960s, Malick studied philosophy at Harvard University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He would go on to become a journalist, penning articles for Life, The New Yorker and Newsweek, while simultaneously teaching at MIT. In 1969, he received an MFA from the American Film Institute. Reported to be very wealthy, a combination of oil profits and script doctoring, it would appear his filmmaking is born from a passion, not out of necessity for his livelihood.

His first movie, 1973’s Badlands, tells the tale of a disaffected, murderous youth named Kit (Martin Sheen), who traverses the country with girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) while fleeing from the authorities. The film is notable for its remarkable visual presentation and its commentary about American society. From the ego and eccentric charm of Kit, who at time possesses the sensibilities of a southern gentleman yet all while on a murderous rampage, Malick’s twist on the American dream gone wrong is expressive and somber, its message about infamy as relevant today as it was then. Badlands introduced many of the trademark elements that would soon come to be associated with Malick’s style.

In these early years, Malick’s films were part of a larger turn in filmmaking. From the glossy world of 1950s movies, there arose a set of filmmakers intent on demonstrating increasingly realistic worldviews and themes. Films such as Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show portrayed a grittier side of humanity, a world where not all questions had answers and where the line between “bad” and “good” were blurred, if they even existed at all. Malick’s films took to this new way and with both Badlands and Days of Heaven he created characters that were not easily defined, who found themselves in situations that tested their resolve, determination and their spirit. His themes about living, dying, modernity, God and nature would touch audiences profoundly.

The commonalities in all Malick’s films are clear: voice over narration, extraordinary cinematographic shots, and little dialogue. Malick’s films are less about story than they are about life. While they are about character, we learn little through their words. There are many ways to approach an analysis of Malick’s work. Taking a cue from the great playwright/actor/director, Sam Shepherd who said of Malick’s films, “for me, they are not so much intellectual, they are visceral,” it seems worthy to look at both for a greater understanding of his work.

Considering Malick is himself a philosopher, there is an inherently strong inclination to intellectualize his work. In 1969, Malick’s translation of philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work, “Essence of Reasons” was published. Nature, modernity, man and his place in the universe are all subjects which Heidegger explored and several precepts from his theories would emerge as themes within Malick’s work. Heidegger is credited for his questions about reality and existence (Being) and his works about nihilism and its rejection of religious and moral principles. Heidegger believed that humans only began to question their existence when confronted with death. He believed that death was the only authentic moment where one could see their place within the larger world. On nature, Heidegger would postulate that man’s desire to control nature was wrought from a deep need for a sense of security; that man grappled with the chaotic natural process of constant and evolutionary change. His views on modernity placed the contemporary worker as the authentic, true model for which man should emulate.

Malik has tackled films about every stage of our ever-changing society, clearly exposing the problems and struggles inherent in each. In Days of Heaven it was the clash of an abrasive urban industrialization against the backdrop of an increasingly remote frontier and where modernity meant that one world was ending as a new one was beginning. Likewise, in The New World, he shows the harsh realities of the frontier with its famine, disease and death while also holding a romantic view of the new “kingdom,” for which pioneers were to create a fresh example for humanity. In Tree of Life, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) only finds humility when faced with joblessness after a plant closure. His confidence rocked after it’s clear that he is one of many, an insignificant cog in the wheel that is progress.

Malick’s most famous film, The Thin Red Line, is an adaptation of James Jones’ novel of the same name. Unlike the many films that focus on Vietnam and the upheavals of the 1960s, Malick instead decided to make a film that focused on World War II. In it, he confronts what is widely considered a patriotic war to show the depravity and senselessness that is battle. He shows that war, at its core, causes even the best of men to commit evil acts, that war holds no sanctity for life, its destruction vast and unrelenting. His message clear that war not only destroys innocence, but stays in the mind and soul of those that experience it, haunting them forever.

In his later films, such as Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick shifts his focus to the chaos that is life. In Tree of Life, he presents an abstract look at grief. He questions God and explores death. Aware of the regrets that we will inevitably have when faced with mortality, Malick seems intent on pointing out how small our moments are in the greater context of the universe, regardless of how tragic and grief filled they are. It expresses that life is transient and in time generations will cease to exist as the world barrels on, impervious to those affected. In To the Wonder, he explores a pastor’s crisis of faith as he stumbles about the path that he once believed was his.

For all that could be said about Malick’s work in a political, philosophical and a historical context, one gets the sense that this is not what Malick intends at all. That instead, it really is the emotions he seems at pains to capture and that what we see on screen is about reaching our deepest feelings, our most sensory emotions. It’s not a stretch to say that Malick is a master of this, of which is done not with words, but with images. His movies are often akin to a series of postcards. Flowing images that capture a moment, images that illustrate a sensation and which seem meant to evoke a visceral reaction from the audience. His stories unfold through these series of images. Characterization and story are shown as how we would expect them to ‘look.' Does one need more than a couple laughing, playing and touching to show love and intimacy? Malick would say no. 

Known for an extensive editing process where he sculpts the story into its end form, it took Malick and his editors a year and half to cut The Thin Red Line. And while there was a proper script, little of that dialogue would remain in the end product. Instead, Malick went to great lengths to eliminate any narrative deemed unnecessary, replacing it with sounds that would evoke emotion from the audience and voice over narration that does everything from posing philosophical questions to giving us insights about the emotional core of the characters. In addition, Malick is skilled at building suspense through sound. His film scores will crescendo and abate, therefore creating momentum that drives the story toward its ultimate conclusion. Combining sound and imagery, Malick deftly juxtaposes cruel reality with beauty; the elegance of nature in the midst of a brutal war in The Thin Red Line, the serenity of a river as fugitives flees in Badlands, vibrant flowing wheat fields and open land against the savage conditions of harvesting that wheat in Days of Heaven. It all tells the greater story Malick wishes to communicate about the universe. Nature is the most obvious sign of this universe and for him it conveys both a physical and spiritual message about life and our space in this world.

Terrance Malick uses a complex set of tools with which to construct his films. Unconventional storytelling mixed with a poetic sense of artistry, his films consistently push boundaries. Malick’s films are skillful and creative expressions, easily appreciated for their emotional power and beauty. In sum, they are the definition of “art.”