Frontiers: A Look at the Films of Terrence Malick
Pajiba's Guide to What's Good for You / Phillip Stephens
Guides | August 23, 2006 | Comments ()
Few filmmakers have made such deliberately transcendental films as Terrence Malick, the poet-philosopher of American cinema, and fewer still have been influenced by them. It’s actually shocking that a decidedly naturalist, meditative auteur like Malick survived his own self-imposed hiatus from the film industry to return, as I can see no popular interest or herald for his having done so. But those few who have seen and admired his work often agree that no one captures the essence of the strange, brutal, idiosyncratic beauty that is America quite like he does.
In Badlands, his first feature-length film, Malick inaugurates what will be his lifelong portrait of the American frontier and the loneliness therein. The story follows the infamous true tale of Charlie Starkweather, who, in collusion with his 14-year-old girlfriend, went on a pointless killing spree in the upper Midwest, becoming an archetype of the futile murderer in American mythology. The character here — Kit Carruthers, played with deadpan gravity by Martin Sheen — is a self-deceiving loser who can’t come to terms with his own life in a small town in the dry Midwest. Kit’s lowly status as a garbage man in the middle of nowhere is totally at odds with his own self-image — he cultivates a vague resemblance to James Dean by slicking back his hair, squinting, leaning on cars, and putting cigarettes in his sleeve. The appearance seems genuine at first, but we’re provided with glimpses that indicate Kit is clumsy and clueless — a fairly pathetic simulacrum.
Regardless of his low station, Kit remains convinced of his quality; he goes to work collecting garbage and performing other odd jobs in his best cowboy boots and drives a hotrod. His fabricated charms are enough to attract the similarly vapid Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, whose father doesn’t take kindly to the pairing. He tells Kit off, the last straw in a bevy of insults against his person, and Kit shoots him down. The killing sets off the journey of the two lovers as they flee the law and live out a peculiarly empty and violent fantasy through the desolate Midwest.
The film is narrated in Holly’s nasal voiceover, made up of readings from her journal, which sound either like a high-school newspaper column or teen gossip rag. The stark contrast between the violence Kit inflicts and Holly’s flippant dissemination illuminates these characters and forecasts much more. Holly is capable of feeling only cursory interest, while Kit uses his pistol (in Malick’s own words) “as a kind of magic wand that eliminates small nuisances.” Malick finds in these two characters a disturbing image of American youth in the post-boomer generations: A shallow, superficial, and generously self-estimating culture weaned on television and mock profundity, which can quickly turn to violence — an assessment that seems disarmingly prescient in light of the high school massacres of the 1990s.
Malick’s second film, Days of Heaven, continues along the frontier experience, this time farther south. Bill (Richard Gere) is a mill worker in turn-of-the-century Chicago. One day he gets in a fight and kills his foreman, then flees to the Texas panhandle with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister. All three gets jobs as harvest laborers in the fields of a nameless farmer (Sam Shepard). Bill tells everyone that Abby is his sister.
Eventually the farmer falls in love with Abby. When Bill learns of this and the fact that the farmer is a dying man, he orchestrates a plot in which Abby marries the farmer to inherit his wealth so that the couple may finally live without the shackles of poverty. The scheme doesn’t go as planned, and tragic events ensue.
It is in Days of Heaven that Malick really adopts the widescreen, deep-focus natural panoramas that he’s famous for and uses extensively in his later films — his beautiful manipulation of cinematography is one of his most obvious gifts. Here nature takes prominence over the characters; it feels like Malick barely has time to squeeze in dialogue and exposition before reeling to a shot of endless plains.
Malick also takes a decided step away from effusion in this film — his characters are pushed to arm’s length, something for which he’s often been criticized excessively in this and his subsequent work. Ultimately, though, Malick’s decision to understate the drama of his stories comes about due to the fine-tuning of his artistic style. Malick filmed almost the entirety of Days of Heaven at the “magic hour” of dusk and dawn, when the sun cannot be seen lighting the sky. The half-light illuminates the endless Texas prairie in a foreboding, almost Biblical way (an allusion that Malick furthers by introducing a plague of locusts and fields of flame), as thunder booms and clouds swirl. Malick’s purpose in this regard can be understood to overrule and equate emotions to the unfathomable natural world. Those who view this film with patience can overlook the minimalist use of characterization and instead be mesmerized by the beautiful panoramas, which paint a portrait of elegiac loss better than words ever could.
After the difficulties filming and editing Days of Heaven, Malick left for Paris and was scarcely heard from in or out of film for 20 years. His departure was construed in so many different ways that it became an almost legendary mystery, which was both furthered and frustrated when he returned out of the blue in 1998 to direct the large-budgeted, star-heavy The Thin Red Line.
The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones’ book and set during the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, seems a hesitant answer to his criticism of impersonality, as he loads the nearly three-hour war epic with hugely emotional performances by its multiple leads, though the vibrant images of combat are ultimately no more evocative than the scenes of grass blowing on the hills. It is also the first of Malick’s films to be set outside America, though it makes a direct implication that America has inserted itself in various places overseas with dangerous consequences.
The film loosely follows an AWOL army private (Jim Caviezel), who has escaped the Pacific Theater to stay on an island among blissful natives who live in ecstasy with their surroundings — a veritable Eden. But the war returns, taking Private Witt back into the main foray on Gaudalcanal. The crescendo to combat slowly builds as the soldiers creep through the high grass and jungles toward the enemy entrenchments. The Thin Red Line was the perfect antithesis to Saving Private Ryan, which was released around the same time. Here Malick contrasts the starkness of war with the poetic idealism of the American concepts of war and glory, which are almost totally incongruous. While shells and bullets rend the earth around them, the soldiers dream of past idylls — the innocence of Witt’s Eden or the love and affection of a wife at home, all narrated in lilting southern accents.
After his explorations of the homeland and its apotheosis abroad, Malick returned to the roots of the American experience literally and figuratively in last year’s The New World, which recreated both the facts and legend surrounding the first English colonies and the interaction between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). The film looks and feels like a natural extension of The Thin Red Line — a meditative narrative, loose-yet-emotive scenes, and thoughtful voiceovers, all of which are showcased through beautiful natural scenery.
Yet The New World had something Malick’s previous film did not — centralized character focus. Only near the end of the movie does the lilting narration stray far from the two main leads; the rest lets us focus on their place in the untouched beauty of America and the instinctive love born in discovering it. The metaphor is too big to ignore and yet somehow easy to miss — this is the beginning of America, where everything went horribly awry.
Though Smith tries to stop the inevitable clash between the new settlers and the natives, he’s as powerless to make his countrymen understand the natural world as he is to understand it himself. The mostly wordless, formless interplay between him and Pocahontas (who is never directly named in the film) and the inability of both characters to come to terms with it make up the core of The New World, rather than the more blatant cultural differences. The bridge between two people ends up not being the romantic one we’re told in stories, but a metaphor for the incongruity of the American myth — the reverence of beauty without understanding or the understanding of beauty without reverence.
Throughout his small but significant career as a filmmaker, Terrence Malick has done more to encompass the weighty dreams and mythologies of America than any other director of the last several decades. Malick understands the yearnings of America inspired by its openness and what happens when these yearnings go unfulfilled — as seen in our long tradition of violence. With an eye for art, Malick weaves this mythos into stories that have all the modern trappings of our sensationalism: the Bonnie-and-Clyde-like rebellion; the love triangle; the war story; the legendary romance — all high-minded art construed against low-minded subjects.
Many who view Malick’s films are discomfited by what they see as artful meandering and unfocused storytelling. Indeed, though his visions of deep skies and endless frontiers should be mesmerizing symbols of freedom, they instead inspire feelings of isolation and fear.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.