Where to Start with Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is one of American cinema’s foremost auteurs. In fact, given the sparsity of authorship in American film throughout the past century of studio-driven content, the Texas-born filmmaker could arguably be the only author of cinema to hail from the United States since John Ford. And, by reputation, Malick is a dictatorial creator, a hands-on guide for actors, set designers and even cinematographers, a filmmaker so reputable for disregarding the input of his collaborators in search of the perfect ethereal moment that he’ll actively bypass actors in the middle of a scene to capture birds flying against the backdrop of wheat fields, or he’ll shoot entire sequences by himself when all of his crew have long since returned to their temporary accommodation. Malick is a filmmaker intent on an experience that he has long proven he cannot trust others to create separately from his manipulative brush stroke, a screen philosopher comparable to only the very greats of cinema old and new, a filmmaker with such a unique perspective that his work has been at once shunned to the outer rims of popularity and yet remains instantly recognisable, his craft so unique that it is a genre unto itself, any work by filmmakers past or present with a semblance of his technique dubbed as “Malickian”.

His are films with a uniquely spiritual and philosophical purpose, his deconstructions of our meanings within existence told carefully and unforgettably poetically, the ever-present mix of voice-over and montage, of steady-cam and natural lighting, providing enriching experiences the likes of which have so irregularly been witnessed in the English language consumption of the form. He’s a creator as enigmatic and reclusive as his films are critically praised, a private man who took a step away from filmmaking for close to two decades after just two feature releases and arguably in the prime of his life (his whereabouts at the time only speculated upon but never confirmed), a director with a Palme d’Or to his name and arguably two of the most influential films to stem from American cinema’s revolution of the 1970s.

Now nine feature dramas deep into his close to fifty year career, with a documentary and five short films also to his name, getting started with Malick can seem overwhelming to a newcomer, the sheer number of hours it would take to consume his entire filmography seeming like a mountainous task given his challenging, art-form-shaping material. But, as is the case with any great filmmaker, production company or studio, there are a number of entry points into Malick’s work that could make for the most enjoyable, eye-opening and even perhaps revolutionary first-time experiences of the Malick way, and those are what we will be presenting in this article.

1. Badlands (1973)

Malick’s debut feature was one that announced a new name to the list of revolutionaries tearing up the old Hollywood code in the 1970s, his “based on a true story” crime thriller Badlands offering a far more irreverent presentation than the more melodramatic movies of the time but somehow feeling more spiritual.

To this day, Badlands remains the director’s most traditional – that is to mean “plot driven” – release, its point of accessibility being the most palatable to those unfamiliar with his later diversions from the American way of presenting stories on screen.

Here, Apocalypse Now star Martin Sheen proves himself to be a breakout actor as the murderous Kit, a man who thinks of himself as something of a James Dean character, “magicking away” his victims as if waving a wand each time he pulls the trigger, Carrie lead Sissy Spacek bursting onto the scene as his co-star and the film’s lead voiceover, her innocent readings of truly juvenile points of views regarding said murders giving the film a somewhat haunted feeling.

The signs of Malick’s greatest qualities regarding poetic voiceover, capturing the beauty of natural landscapes in the golden hour and bringing philosophy into his stories is as evident here as it is anywhere else in his filmography, but Badlands interestingly only teases some of the more revolutionary aspects of his would-be filmmaking journey, this being one of just two pictures he’d release during this period of his career before taking a near-twenty year hiatus ahead of the release of the next film we’re going to outline in this piece…

2. The Thin Red Line (1998)

1978’s Days of Heaven soured Malick on movie making and the Hollywood studio system, but the impact he left on the industry was as important and as reputable as those left by the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, Bogdanovich, De Palma and Lucas, so when his return was set into motion in 1995 with 20th Century Fox offering him a great deal of money to make an epic-scale war movie adaptation of James Jones’ novel “The Thin Red Line”, all of Hollywood gathered to watch and to take part in what was seen in some parts as the second coming of a genius; a genius who had only grown more mythical in their absence.

The Thin Red Line featured one of the greatest casts of any movie ever released, the ever-photographable lead Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) supported by the likes of Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, John C. Reilly, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok, Tim Blake Nelson and Jared Leto. The war movie, set in the South Pacific and telling of a battle between the United States and Japan, floated between narratives of the superstars who personified the legions of officers sent into the aimless gunfight, humanising each of them in the inhumane circumstances of war, Malick pondering whether the grace of God could even shine on such a massacre.

Released the same year as Spielberg’s iconic and awards-consuming Saving Private RyanThe Thin Red Line was lost on audiences who had grown accustomed to hyper-bloody, action-centred fare at the box office and couldn’t grasp Malick’s much slower, much more contemplative, and much less black and white (good and evil) take on the war genre. Nevertheless, he forged a classic, a movie that redefined what the genre could offer and challenged the perceptions of what mainstream cinema could deliver. It wasn’t what the studio wanted, nor what audiences had expected, but in the decades since it has become an unmissable film – its philosophical pursuit of understanding the place of violence and hatred among the beauty of the Earth being a remarkable diversion for the genre; one that can ultimately satisfy the filmgoer uninterested by what we have normalised as “the war movie”.

The Thin Red Line will feel slower than the other two movies in this article but it arguably delivers more effectively in terms of emotion, Malick’s wondrously edited and photographed piece guided by the composition of legendary composer Hans Zimmer – a composition Zimmer would re-use on Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

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3. To the Wonder (2012)

Early features Badlands and Days of Heaven are considered Malick’s “first stage”, that being a time of more narrative-based undertakings filmed in more traditional methods. The Thin Red Line and follow-up return features The New World and the autobiographical Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life are seen as the director’s “second stage”, that being an era in his career in which he began to toy with the avant-garde and do away with narrative altogether. To the Wonder marks the beginning of the director’s third and most recent stage, his most metaphorical and non-traditional stage that has challenged the very fabric of filmmaking to the point of ultimate adoration for some and unrivaled frustration for others.

To the Wonder marks the moment in which Malick takes the greatest aspects of his work – the ponderous and poetic voiceover, the free-form photography, beautiful natural lighting and barely consistent editing – and turns it all the way up, transforming each from mere aspects of the process to the entire process in of themselves. The Tree of Life was perhaps the director’s first great foray into this realm, but the self-referential and deeply personal aspects of that film make it more of an ideal final watch than an opening watch, To the Wonder being much more of a handy and easy to digest first dive into this most unconventional adventure.

Here, stars Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko meet in France and move to the US, their relationship becoming strained as Kurylenko’s Marina struggles with adapting to her new life, the voiceover in one moment expressing previously incomprehensible love and adoration, and the next expressing fear, anxiety and hurt. Shot as beautifully as possible by Malick’s most trusted confidante Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman; The Revenant), To the Wonder can act as a remarkable rebirth to the filmgoer willing to pass themselves over to it, an astonishing moment in cinema in which suddenly something new, remarkable and even transcendent fashions itself out of nothing right in front of your eyes, beauty pouring out of every inch of its frame.

By no means is To the Wonder the most extraordinary or universally beloved of Malick’s releases, but what it tells of romantic love and the universal pursuit of meaning is a treat for anyone yet to experience film the way Malick is intent on making it; a game-changer to those more familiar with traditional and often American filmmaking sensibilities.

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There are few filmmakers who have ever made work as different and consistently challenging as Malick, his filmography to date being shaped by a philosophy and artistry learned during his two university degrees (philosophy and film) and practiced across many decades after often years of preparation. Like all great filmmakers, Malick is a meticulous constructor, yet in watching his films there is a sense of freedom to be found, an idea of being in a place or a situation rather than just observing it. Malick’s films are frustrating to some, but if you hand yourself over to them you could truly be in for something of an extraordinary film experience.

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