Knight of Cups

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2016)

L.A. Story

If the movies are to be believed, Los Angeles is one ugly place. It eats its dreamers alive (Mulholland Drive), harbors severe divisions in economic and racial strata (Safe), and is often depicted as nothing more than a cesspool of disreputable people and seedy crime (L.A. Confidential, Pulp Fiction, and hilariously The Big Lebowski). And yet, visual storytellers can’t seem to get enough of the world-famous metropolis. From Sunset Boulevard to Chinatown to last year’s Tangerine, filmmakers continue to mine compelling narratives and memorable characters from L.A.’s easily lampooned traits and glaring flaws. Leave it to one of today’s greatest cinematic artists Terrence Malick, then, to find beauty where most others only seek to expose ugliness. It takes true talent to uncover such beauty amidst the superficiality and excess of the city’s elite as well as the crowded streets below that play host to the many underprivileged and underserved. With his latest, Knight of Cups, Malick does just that. He never glorifies the brokenness his camera captures – as so many of his contemporaries do with their increasingly exhausting “but that’s the point” style of exploitative filmmaking (von Trier, Refn, Tarantino) – but rather allows the beautiful and the ugly to coexist in a manner that only he can.

In this way, Knight of Cups fits perfectly within the framework of his slowly expanding oeuvre as Malick has explored this juxtaposition from Badlands onward. Too, it follows the trajectory he laid the groundwork for arguably with The New World where exhilaratingly edited sequences are pieced together in post-production to form a collage of visuals that tell a relatively straightforward story. In the filmmaker’s latter day work, then, every image is deliberate, yet somehow feels spontaneous or free flowing. It’s as if you might just see anything at any time, and yet each shot, each image undoubtedly means something. While his detractors only see pretentious self-seriousness, his devoted faithful find poetry and significant meaning in this wholly unique style of filmmaking. His latest is no exception. Knight of Cups follows its direct predecessor To the Wonder in pushing traditional narrative even further into the background almost to the point of abstraction.

The film loosely follows the exploits of a successful Hollywood screenwriter who finds anything but fulfillment as he indulges in his hedonistic impulses nurtured by the L.A. lifestyle he leads. Rick (Christian Bale) is unfaithful to his wife (Cate Blanchett), lives estranged from his father (Brian Dennehy), uses women like drugs, and carelessly throws money away at lavish parties and on expensive trips. Malick’s camera captures it all as naked women frolic about luxurious hotel rooms, as overly dressed partygoers gather at multi-million-dollar estates, and as Rick bounces from relationship to relationship. And yet, as expected, all of it leaves him empty. He is a lost soul in a world that promises happiness with each swipe of a credit card or each sexual conquest. As with The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, and especially To the Wonder, Malick almost completely eschews dialogue in favor of voiceover narration to chronicle Rick’s existential pilgrimage. It’s a fittingly intimate approach to penetrating his subject’s troubled psyche; voiceovers marked by dissatisfaction and hopelessness wondrously belie the images of the seemingly endless good times they accompany.

In other ways, Knight of Cups builds upon the aesthetic Malick has been refining since his masterful debut. Even more than To the Wonder, here he trades the wonders of the natural world for those created by humans. It goes without saying that the partnership between Malick and DP Emmanuel Lubezki who have worked together since The New World certainly ranks amongst cinema’s most rewardingly fruitful. Under Malick’s direction, Lubezki shoots buildings, billboards, and highways like the billowing wheat fields of Days of Heaven, or the lush, green jungles of The Thin Red Line, or the unspoiled lands of The New World. The result is a feast of arresting visuals that could convince anyone L.A. is the most gorgeous spot on the planet. Seemingly insignificant images serve as the film’s most striking shots – an open-mouthed dog retrieving a toy underwater caught in slow motion, a static shot of a brightly illuminated parking garage, a child swaying back and forth on a swing set, her movement captured most likely using a GoPro.

Too, Malick continues his trend of redefining the role of an actor’s performance by flattening celebrity and bending star power to fit his abstract aesthetic. The film is filled to the brim with major Hollywood talent, but it’s difficult to call anything any one of them does acting. They are more fixtures of the frame, no more important than their surroundings. If there’s one downside to his tendency to downplay celebrity (which he’s received flack for since The Thin Red Line) in Knight of Cups, it’s that it threatens to cheapen his characters. We know and understand Rick, not because of Bale’s performance but because of his voiceovers and the time and attention Malick’s camera devotes to him. The supporting characters aren’t given that same attention and are thus far less convincing. This is particularly troublesome with regards to the women in the film. At one point Antonio Banderas’s playboy character compares women to flavors. Some days he might want strawberry, other times raspberry. Unfortunately (and more than likely unintentionally), the film almost treats them the same. As Malick parades woman after woman in front of the camera – whether A-lister or extra – we’re left to wonder if their individual journeys are as valid as Rick’s. It’s a flaw in an otherwise gorgeous film that documents the woes of decadence that send our protagonist spiraling toward disaster.

Redemption is never far away in Malick’s world, however, and though Rick’s dead-end wandering through the emptiness of L.A.’s landscape consumes almost the entire film’s runtime, Knight of Cups hints at progress for this wayward pilgrim in its final moments. For some, the ambiguity in its finale may prove a lot less satisfying than the promise of new life at the end of The Thin Red Line or the victory of the way of grace in The Tree of Life or the closure the former lovers attain in To the Wonder, but it remains another remarkably hopeful chapter in Malick’s canon as its ending suggests a new beginning. Whatever Malick’s specific religious or philosophical beliefs with regards to this world, he consistently delivers some of the medium’s most beautiful, life-affirming films of any filmmaker working today.

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To the Wonder

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2012)

Glimpses of Beauty

The latest visual poetry from the ever-enigmatic Terrence Malick finds the filmmaker exploring themes of romantic love in the present day, both for the first time. Never has such a short amount of time passed between Malick films, and given the universal critical acclaim of The Tree of Life, it might explain why the overall reaction (if any at all) to this year’s To the Wonder was generally poor. If viewed merely as leftovers from 2011’s cinematic triumph, then Malick’s latest would certainly seem like a resounding disappointment. But, seeing To the Wonder through a new lens – one not tired of the director’s aesthetic – reveals that his latest is rather unlike its immediate predecessor at all and that the director has new territory yet to uncover. While The Tree of Life grappled with existential quandaries that called for sequences devoted to the grandiosity of the cosmos, To the Wonder appears much smaller in scale focusing on the lives of just a few in small town America – no less accomplished, but seemingly more personal, intimate.

In this way, Malick’s latest most resembles The New World, if one must find an antecedent in his oeuvre. In that film, Pocahontas became a foreigner discovering a foreign land as she came to live with the English settlers in Jamestown and eventually journey to England. Here, the foreigner is Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian woman raising her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) in Paris only to be uprooted again when she follows a new love to his home in the United States. Their newfound love sustains Marina and Neil (Ben Affleck) only for a time. Soon, Marina finds Neil consistently distant and her daughter pining for the familiarity of home. Mistaking the feelings of security, comfort, and passion for love, she decides to leave Neil and return to Paris when her visa expires only to come back to the States when the burden of his absence becomes too much to bear. Ultimately, however, the disillusionment of this troubled union leads her into the arms of another man, effectively dissolving her love affair and marriage. To mirror Marina’s crisis of faith in love, Malick also gives us Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) – another foreigner in this strange land who likewise stands on the edge of a crisis of faith. This morose priest cannot help but doubt the goodness of God when faced with the injustices of poverty, sickness, and suffering that surround him.

The bulk of Malick’s film rests on these tumultuous relationships between characters: those between Marina and Neil, Jane (a former love interest whom Neil revisits, played by Rachel McAdams) and Neil, and Father Quintana and God. The people who populate To the Wonder may very well be Malick’s most wounded characters yet. And, like his previous work, the filmmaker favors voiceover narration over dialogue. In fact, almost all dialogue has been eclipsed by the use of voiceovers and the film’s saturnine soundtrack adding to its internalized intimacy. Plenty of great films reproduce the realistic, verbose arguments that shatter relationships (such as Richard Linklater’s recent Before Midnight), but no other working filmmaker quite captures the equally damaging and present silent moments in between exchanges like Malick. His latest features the most notable instances of trailing dialogue suggesting that these interchanges are not nearly as important as the effect they have on his characters.

In more than its sole reliance on voiceovers, To the Wonder marks several firsts for its director. The aforementioned contemporary and suburban setting challenges the filmmaker and regular collaborator director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki to highlight manmade infrastructure over nature. Malick trades in clusters of trees for rows of homes, natural landscapes for drive-thrus and grocery stores, and yet the final product is one of inexplicable beauty. Too, the director’s bold decision to shoot non-actors as the small town’s residents proves to be a wise choice and one that adds a new element of verisimilitude yet unseen in his work. All of this undeniably adds to the film’s delicate intimacy.

Eschewing the grand themes and execution of his three previous efforts, the title of his latest proves somewhat ironic. The Tree of Life provided the apex of cinematic wonder and stood as a culmination of the explorations of his entire body of work, thus with a title like To the Wonder, one might rightly assume a furtherance of the same. But, unlike her earlier filmic counterparts (Linda in Days of Heaven, Private Witt in The Thin Red Line, Pocahontas in The New World, and the O’Brien family in The Tree of Life) Marina seems least concerned with unearthing the wonder buried in her surroundings. Yes, she hints at discovery (finding honesty in a small town American parade or sharing in her daughter’s fascination with the cleanliness of a grocery store), but ultimately she is too distracted by her own desires for love to experience the world bursting forth before her eyes. To be sure, this is not a criticism, but it draws a definite line between the trajectory of his last three features and this. To the Wonder may be his most intimate project, but it will probably also resonate with the fewest of his viewers. Whereas we are invited to participate in the musings of Pocahontas as she discovers the new world or Jack O’Brien as he contemplates the meaning of life, Marina’s journey is private and we are invited to watch, but not to engage.

Malick seeks to amend this with the inclusion of Father Quintana’s presence and his own posture of questioning. As a possible, hopeful corrective to Marina’s final decision to abandon the love that once defined her (despite Neil’s presumed forgiveness for her adultery), Quintana’s faith appears restored by film’s end. In a touching sequence narrated by the priest’s self-affirming biblical truths, Quintana (and now Neil) continue to visit the town’s ill, disabled, and downtrodden seemingly recognizing the importance of spreading good. “We were made to see you,” the father meditates as he chooses to rely on something more concrete to repair his faith than mere emotions. But, in the end, it is Marina’s vision we are watching. The film begins and ends with her ruminations. To solidify this notion of internal wondering, Malick concludes his film with an unprecedented (and possibly unintentional) reference to another great filmmaker’s work. The final shots of Mont St. Michel (the Wonder in this film’s title) call to mind the finale of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. As Mr. Chow travels to Angkor Wat to hide the secrets of his lost love in the walls of that age-old, sacred structure, so too Marina buries her hopes, dreams, sorrows, and regrets in the memory of the Wonder where it all began. These glimpses of beauty, if only too brief, mark another breathtaking chapter in Terrence Malick’s revered canon and suggest that his most personal film is yet to come.

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The Tree of Life

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2011)

Glorious Wonder

How does one begin to discuss a film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? There hasn’t been a film quite as important, majestic, or beautifully artistic in many, many years. The cinematic master’s work stands as a deeply profound experience of existential inquiry that feels like a culmination of his efforts throughout the years. The wanderings and ruminations of his four previous films seem to all have led to this. Much could be said regarding this richly layered work of art – its religious implications, its philosophizing, its musings on the origins of life, its familial politics, etc. – but, here I am merely concerned with basking in the sheer wonder of Malick’s creation.

In The Tree of Life, Malick chronicles two generations in the lives of the O’Brien family pausing primarily in the 1950s as Mr. and Mrs. (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise their three young boys. The film mostly follows the eldest son Jack (as a child played by Hunter McCracken) as he wrestles with the diverging ideals of his mother and father. The strength of this family is tested and their lives drastically altered when the middle son dies in the war at age nineteen. As an aging man, Jack (as an adult played by Sean Penn) reflects on his childhood marked by a damaged relationship with his father and continues to grapple with the premature death of his brother. Malick’s story is decidedly simple and familiar, but his execution in relaying this narrative through arresting visuals and a cornucopia of classical music compositions posits The Tree of Life as a thoroughly engaging piece of experiential literature.

In its construction alone, the gifted filmmaker should be applauded. He bookends his primary narrative with two rather unconventional pieces rife with symbolic imagery and sensationally disjointed editing. The first introduces our characters and sets the stage for things to come giving us brief glimpses of images that appear later. Mrs. O’Brien narrates this section, and holds that no ill will comes to those who love and espouse grace. “I will be true to whatever comes,” she asserts and affirms her place before God. Her faith is then tested when she receives the news about her son’s death. “Lord, why? Where were you? Who are we to you?” Her desperate questions echo those of our own at some point in our lives.

Before delving into the heart of his story, Malick leads us into an unexpected, yet wondrously conceived interlude that ambitiously documents the creation (or just inception depending on your beliefs) of the universe. The camera (with talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at the helm) captures the grandiosity of the cosmos down to the delicate intricacies of molecular structures in this extended sequence that eschews narration magnificently set to Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting piece “Lacrimosa.” Evoking the grandeur of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the scene boasts some of the most visually arresting imagery ever committed to film.

Returning to more conventional fare, Malick sets camp in the story of the evolution of the O’Brien family. And, as per usual, he allows breathtaking images to tell this story of first love, marriage, and children and relies very little on dialogue. The filmmaker captures the essence of the beauty of new life through minute details – a father gazing at the simple complexity of his newborn’s feet, the innate connection between mother and child, the shadows cast of boys at play. In one particularly well-executed sequence, Malick touchingly depicts the passing of time through early childhood set to Gustav Holst’s “Hymn to Dionysus” and Smetana’s “Vltava (Die Moldau).” (It goes without saying that Malick’s use of music is unparalleled in today’s film industry.)

The film’s montages come to rest when Jack is around eleven or twelve years old. Here, Malick’s primary theme emerges. Jack’s father and mother lay out before him two distinct paths: the way of nature and the way of grace. Mrs. O’Brien hints at the film’s beginning that all of us must choose which to follow. And so, Malick explores the tension between these two ways of life through the eyes of Jack faced with the paramount choice. Over the course of the film, his mother comes to teach him to always extend love and grace warning that the way of nature seeks only to please itself. The only way to live is to love. Conversely, Jack’s father presents the primal instincts of our nature chiding that the only way to get ahead in the world is through fierce will. “If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good,” Mr. O’Brien instructs his three sons.

It should be no surprise which way of life Malick deems most noble. He does, however, allow his characters to recognize their own folly and wisely does not punish them for it. Ignoring the exhortations of his angelic mother, Jack soon embraces the unforgiving brutality of his own nature. After being exposed to the cruelty of this life (witnessing the death of a peer, another friend marred by a house fire), the boy rebukes the creator declaring, “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” Uncharacteristically, Jack begins lashing out – destroying property with his friends, stealing from his neighbors, carelessly defying both his parents. The conflicted boy recognizes the tension inside of him: “I do what I hate, what I want to do I can’t do,” he ponders evoking the words of St. Paul from the book of Romans. Testing the limits of his transgressive patterns, Jack turns on his brother and in an act of betrayal shoots him in the finger with a pellet gun. Finally acknowledging the damage he has wrought, he does apologize to his brother who graciously forgives him.

While Jack’s father and mother certainly provide obvious metaphors for these two disparate paths, they are also fully realized characters, firmly grounded in the complexities of humanity. To diminish them to symbolic archetypes would be inappropriately reductive. Mrs. O’Brien, while often embodying purity itself, also must reckon with her own faith when her son passes. She is not immune to these most fundamental human doubts. Likewise, Mr. O’Brien, often aggressive and reproachful toward his children, too falls victim to unbridled emotion. He experiences guilt surrounding the harsh treatment of his sons, also mourns the death of his second oldest, and insecurely yearns for the approval and adoration of his children. He wants to be a good father, but he simply does not know how. Outstanding performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain only help to breathe life into this troubled married couple. Happiness, despair, and anger are all wonderfully captured in the faces of these talented actors. Malick, it seems, has found a perfect muse in Chastain who gives the performance of the year while barely uttering more than a few lines. Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan should similarly be praised for their impressive takes on the three sons giving new hope to the art of child acting.

Malick’s film returns to the wanderings of its beginning for its final segment. The story of the O’Brien family ends when both father and son realize the limits of their chosen path. Jack has hurt his brother and closest friend. His father faces the reality of not achieving his definition of success through increased wealth and better circumstances. He ultimately loses his job, and the family must move from their home. Transitioning from shots of an empty house, we see an adult Jack aimlessly shuffle through an arid wilderness – a symbol of his real life quandaries. A montage of surrealist imagery follows echoing the events of Jack’s somewhat tumultuous life. It ends with a sequence on a gray beach. Jack, seemingly searching for something or someone, is quickly joined by other wanderers and eventually his family as he best remembers them. This, then, stands as the troubled man’s final reckoning: he embraces his mother, reconciles with his estranged father, and reunites with his deceased brother. He too witnesses his mother relinquishing control of her son to God. “I give him to you. I give you my son,” she declares as Jack stands at the door with her as she releases him. Breathtaking and moving, the scene instills a sense of glorious wonder, one unmatched by anything else in Malick’s untouchable oeuvre.

There are other unique touches throughout that expose Malick’s supreme gift at filmmaking (a shot of Mrs. O’Brien suspended in air by her enchanting innocence, a boy emerging from a house submerged in water to symbolize the miracle of giving birth, a predatory dinosaur that chooses the way of grace, Jack’s imposing voiceover that belies his dutiful prayers), but to expound on these would call for countless pages of admiration. If last year’s greatest cinematic feat was inextricably tied to its release date, this year’s The Tree of Life exists outside of context and remains utterly timeless. It has already become an essential piece of cinema, and my favorite film – one that brings this admittedly religious writer closer to God. Its creator, however, beautifully leaves it open for interpretation. Before its credits roll, Jack returns from the dreamlike world on the beach, and we are planted again in the real world of skyscrapers and concrete. Jack peers around as if to determine whether or not it was all a dream. He smiles for the first time presumably having experienced the way of grace. As The Tree of Life ends, Malick is careful not to firmly answer any questions. Instead, we are left with this gift – a beautiful and challenging film for the ages.

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The New World

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)

Through the Eyes of the Other

Terrence Malick’s visionary aesthetic exists in a world entirely its own. No other filmmaker today captures the grandeur of the world in which we live quite like him. The director’s small oeuvre is marked by breathtaking imagery and celebrations of this beautiful earth. With only two (yet near perfect) films in the past thirty years, it would seem safe to say Malick also approaches his craft with careful precision and solemnity. Thus, it would only be fair to engage each of his latest efforts with a sense of reverence in hopes that the great filmmaker would enlighten us once again with his supremely unique vision.

The New World finds Malick exploring actual historical events like its predecessor The Thin Red Line. But, just like that film, we should readily expect that the director is far more concerned with the philosophical nuances of legend than adhering to strict historical accounts. His latest tells the story of the momentous collision of cultures that was the founding of Jamestown in pre-colonial North America. The film begins with the arrival of the English explorers as the natives gaze at the magnificent vessels in amazement. The scene, brilliantly set to Wagner’s “Vorspiel” to his opera Das Rheingold, beautifully captures the sheer wonder that both sides express in anticipation of the imminent meeting.

The settlers land, and John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) are quickly established as our prominent English players. Brought over in the stocks, Smith is already a man with few allies. Presumably anxious to regain one of his finest crewmembers, Newport immediately absolves Smith of his supposed seditious remarks and places him in a crucial leadership role. Malick wastes no time in chronicling the inception of what would become Jamestown and gives us glimpses of encounters with the natives, construction of the settlement, and early failures through an expertly edited brief sequence. We piece together the strain the new environment has had on these settlers with little to no dialogue – one of the filmmaker’s most admirable trademarks. All the while, the young Pocahontas (impressive newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher) watches from afar as this strange new settlement grows. She quickly becomes the film’s main protagonist and the eyes through which we witness this pre-American world.

When the situation for the English settlers becomes dire, Newport returns to England for more aid and names John Smith captain in his stead. Before he leaves, he charges the fearless explorer with increasing trade and improving relations with the natives. Things turn sour during an outlying expedition, and Smith finds himself held captive by Pocahontas’ tribe. In an act of grace, the young maiden steps in front of the explorer’s executioner after his intrusion has sealed his fate. Bound to her by this courageous deed, Smith, allowed to stay with the tribe through winter, becomes the girl’s pupil as she teaches him to see the world through the eyes of her people. This sequence provides the beating heart of Malick’s film. Like Smith, we too are charged with discovering and engaging this beautiful new world. Pocahontas and Smith expectedly form a bond of love as they learn the other’s language and perception of the world around them. Malick captures this blossoming romance and the character’s shared awe of nature through exquisite, copious editing. He creates his story by piecing together seconds of footage woven tightly like an elaborate tapestry.

Spring arrives, and the natives return Smith to his foreign colony. They tear a blindfold from his eyes and the dilapidated state of Jamestown stands before him. Burdened by the despair that lingers in the settlement like a pandemic, the captain reassumes his responsibilities and takes charge once more of preserving the fort until Newport’s return. Smith’s newfound allegiance pits the settlers against the natives on multiple occasions, and this seeming betrayal ultimately leads to his dismissal from Malick’s narrative seamlessly transitioning into another exploration of a different new world for the film’s true protagonist, Pocahontas. Banished by her tribe for her loyalty to the wayward captain, the girl makes a new home alongside the foreigners in Jamestown. She adopts a new name, wardrobe, and religion. Her domesticated countenance leads her into the arms of another Englishman after Smith’s departure. John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a soft-spoken and serious tobacco cultivator, falls for this fascinating newcomer and convinces her to wed him. Pocahontas (now Rebecca) eventually journeys with her husband (and son) to his native England, and Malick’s camera follows the young wife, now a foreigner herself, as she discovers this industrial new world.

Malick ends his exploration of wonder here in England as his protagonist succumbs to a fatal illness prior to returning to her motherland. Before her untimely death, Rebecca faces her former lover again but poignantly chooses dutifully loving her husband. It’s a beautifully subtle close to that chapter of innocent discovery. The filmmaker closes his film as it begins with Wagner’s “Vorspiel”, this time accompanying an unforgettable montage of Rebecca joyfully frolicking around as she used to, only now in this disparate new world.

The New World stands as an undeniable triumph of unimaginable beauty. Though the film’s creator, like his brave heroine, finds beauty in all worlds whether manufactured or natural, he bares an inclination to favor God’s original gift of nature. And, in crafting a story through the eyes of a Native American protagonist, he seems to have found the perfect medium through which to paint this magnificent vision. Seeking to tell its story largely through images and scarce dialogue, The New World proves a perfect successor to the meditations of The Thin Red Line. More than many films of this past decade (and century for that matter), it makes a strong case for the distinct visuals of film as pure art.

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The Thin Red Line

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1998)

Another World

“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world?”

The world can be an ugly place. History, through account and through art, is full of stories of humankind’s misdeeds, wars upon the earth that have ravaged human, beast, and nature. In the face of such evil, many turn to faith, many to science, and still many lose any semblance of hope. Cinema through the years has found storytellers both bitter and hopeful grappling with the failings of religious, scientific, intellectual, or humanistic institutions, but most seem to turn a blind eye to one or the other. Many films are fun or entertaining, but make no room for the realities of pain and suffering. Many films are grim or cynical, but ignore the pockets of beauty to be found in the darkest corners of this life. Not so with the films of Terrence Malick. I can think of no other filmmaker who sees the world as Malick does. At once his films capture the senselessness of violence and widespread evil and the ethereal beauty bubbling under the surface of such seeming hopelessness. It’s a wondrously humane feature of all his works, but it’s perhaps on its fullest display in the director’s The Thin Red Line, his much-anticipated first film since Days of Heaven following a twenty-year hiatus.

If there was any disappointment following the release of Malick’s film (despite its several Oscar nominations), it stemmed from its eschewal of war film tropes epitomized in Spielberg’s (unjustly, yet unsurprisingly) far more welcomed Saving Private Ryan released the same year. The critical and movie-going communities saddled Spielberg’s film with the burden of being the war film to end all war films, leading the charge on a resuscitated genre into the new century, and The Thin Red Line became its loftier, less interesting companion piece. And, while a reappraisal of both films has since seen critics (finally) regard Malick’s as the superior film, this distinction is crucial in understanding what we’re watching with the filmmaker’s third feature. For though it is a war film in matters of genre, the typical action of war takes a backseat to the philosophical wanderings of its narrative voiceovers and its beautiful meditation on life and death. Each of Malick’s films touches on humankind’s propensity to violence (both Badlands and Days of Heaven chronicle the consequences of an aggressive male protagonist too quick to kill) but perhaps none more so than here. With its WWII-set backdrop, Red Line follows the exploits of one army company as they’re tasked with taking the island of Guadalcanal, a part of the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific, from the Japanese. Most of the action revolves around the specific mission of securing a strategic ridge for the U.S., and the sequence isn’t short on grisly, violent exchanges, but the bulk and heart of the film lies elsewhere.

The voiceover narration provided by the young, naïve characters in Badlands and Days of Heaven was a key feature of both films, but the multiple voiceover perspective of Red Line adds a whole new layer to Malick’s craft. As viewers, we’re fully immersed in the chaos and uncertainty plaguing the Charlie Company as we sporadically hear from several individuals as high ranking as colonel and as low as private. This window into the thoughts of these men torn by the ravages of war, but bound together as a makeshift family gives the film an affecting intimacy not seen in much of cinema. In these private, unspoken ruminations, Malick unearths the atrocities of war in a remarkably personal manner. Thus, when he opts for visualizing violence, it’s all the more tragic for we know the fears and silent terrors within each of these men. Malick holds nothing back in showing how war affects the body and mind. One sergeant (John Savage) nearly loses his own mind after watching each of his men picked off but he alone is spared, another officer (Matt Doran) verbally disparages a captured Japanese soldier as he tears out the deceased’s teeth only to later shutter at his own inhumanity, a soft-spoken captain (Elias Koteas) must choose between defying orders or sending his men to certain death, and another private (Ben Chaplin) fondly remembers his wife at home only to receive an unexpected and shattering Dear John letter near the end of his deployment. All the while, the Company’s 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) watches on in disbelief as the world tears itself apart. He has no more faith in humanity. No hope for the world.

“Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of; all faces are the same man.”

Then, amidst all this great personal tragedy Malick documents, there is Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) at the film’s center. In juxtaposition to most of the other characters’ despair, Witt sees the world through different eyes. The film introduces us to him first – a soldier gone AWOL, evading his Company, and living amongst the Melanesian people on a remote island. There he seems to live in peace with this people group, untouched by the war, and he’s moved by the simplicity and placidity of their lifestyle. Malick shoots these early sequences with grace and thankfully without any condescension. There is no romanticism about the Melanesian way of life, only the promise of an existence devoid of widespread carnage. This paradise is lost too soon as Witt’s Company’s ship nears the island and brings him back on board. He’s lectured by the cynical Welsh and demoted to stretcher-bearer, but Witt takes with him that glistening wonder in his eye even as Malick forces him and us to the front lines.

Private Witt wears on his face an expression dissimilar to that of his fellow soldiers. We hear his thoughts frequently through his voiceover, and yet there’s a pleasant ambiguity surrounding his worldview. He too is troubled by the suffering wrought by this war, but he’ll just as soon gun down a Japanese soldier if a “brother” of his might be in harm’s way. And yet, he may be one of the fair few of his Company who sees the other as humans. After the troops take the ridge from the Japanese, Witt’s companions take turns harassing and berating the surrendered enemy, but Witt simply looks on with a calm understanding. He sees, but he also sees through. At one point he wonders whether all men share one soul, each an extension of another. This oneness is essential to Red Line’s philosophy – the age-old “if I hurt another, I only hurt myself” radiates from not only this film but also each of Malick’s works. Given the director’s Christian background, a vague pantheistic worldview is unlikely, but if Witt suggests an alternate version of Christianity, then it’s a refreshing, anti-fundamentalist strain that encompasses the whole earth.

For not only do Witt’s wonderings speak to a universal human spirit, but also to humankind’s relation to nature. Christianity never allows that human and nature are one and the same, nor do I think Malick’s work suggests as much (even at his most in touch with the environment in The New World). Instead, Red Line paints a beautiful portrait of what potential symbiosis could look like. From Badlands to To the Wonder, his camera has been unmistakably attuned to the world around him, and Red Line pushes the point even further. The very first shot of the film is of a crocodile slowly sliding into the water as Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score urgently swells. Later, during one of the film’s bloodiest scenes, Malick cuts to a sickly looking bird falling to its death. And then, in one of the film’s greatest sequences, the soldiers crawl through the tall grass as the camera snakes its way around them until the line between man and nature is nearly indistinct. The gorgeous camerawork by John Toll only serves to amplify the effect. Perhaps all this suggests that humans waging war upon other humans not only leads to the destruction of their own kind, but to the whole earth as well. Traditional, Middle Ages-influenced Christianity has taught us that we needn’t despair at the state of the world for one day Jesus Christ will come again to rescue us out of it. And yet, this escapist theology (that incidentally doesn’t actually square with Christian scripture) doesn’t provide the salvation for our troubled troops that we might expect. Instead, yet again, Malick reveals something profoundly different in the character of Private Witt.

“I’ve seen another world.”

Early on in Red Line, Sgt. Welsh confronts Witt after the private has just been discovered and apprehended by his Company. An exacerbated Welsh delivers his spiel on what will become his token pessimistic take on the fate of this world. Witt’s indifference to his superior’s doom-and-gloom and his own pervasive optimism annoy Welsh, and he seeks to procure a reason for this seemingly misplaced faith in goodness. Witt simply replies that he’s seen another world. Without much context this early in the film, we might share in Welsh’s casual dismal of this subordinate, “seeing” other imaginary worlds as a result of the effects of war. But, as the film moves along, it becomes clear that other world Witt sees is still our own. But, instead of seeing enemies, he sees brothers; instead of inhabitable wilderness, home; instead of only brokenness, the potential for good; instead of only suffering, the promise of healing; instead of ugliness, beauty. Yes, in this other world that Witt sees within our own, that Malick and Toll miraculously capture, is one of sheer beauty. He’s never blind to the pain, the injustice, but he never allows it to snuff out the light. Even as Witt loses his own life to the cruelty war, there’s a heart-wrenching promise of new life in the film’s final shot as a sole sprout springs from a fallen coconut on a deserted beach. Life always finds a way. This, then, is the greatest triumph of The Thin Red Line. It’s a profoundly spiritual film and also one of great humanist depth – a film that never shies away from depicting the destruction that humankind has wrought on this earth, and yet uncovers the hidden, radiant beauty that lies waiting everywhere for those who seek it.

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Days of Heaven

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1978)

In God’s Country

After he burst onto the scene with Badlands – a film that suggested a bright new talent, yet easily fit within the parameters of the supposed American New Wave – but before he began working more frequently with the radically structured and intoxicatingly edited films of the present (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life), filmmaker Terrence Malick directed Days of Heaven – a film that at once announced a fully formed and exhilarating aesthetic and forced the man into seclusion following the disappointment of its critical reception. That Malick’s second film has been welcomed back into the fold in hindsight – typically the sole feature of his now seven generally recognized by most as canonical – is not only satisfying to Malick diehards (like myself), but it’s also entirely fitting. For though the film met a rather cool reception in its day, it makes sense that it remains Malick’s most accepted film given its placement in his oeuvre and growth as an artist. It marks a fuller maturation of style that Badlands promised, but it also stands as one of the director’s most accessible. It follows a linear narrative, its minimal plot is structured around the age-old love triangle device, and one character’s expressive voiceover narration ensures that no viewer could miss Malick’s intentions. This seeming adherence to traditionalism and its brief 95-minute runtime might lead those primarily versed in Malick’s later work to label it slight. But, make no mistake; Days of Heaven carries all the signature cinematic heft of the filmmaker’s work – thematically, visually, and aurally. So, what is it about this deceptively simple film that makes it unmistakably a work of its highly divisive director and yet is sung with the highest of praises? For starters, you will never forget what you see.

As with all of Malick’s films, Days of Heaven is breathtakingly beautiful to watch. On a purely visual level alone, it may very well be his most stunning. Before teaming with the remarkable Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick worked with DP Nestor Almendros for his second feature. The pair shot almost exclusively during the “magic hour” shortly after sunrise or at dusk giving the film its radiant, sun-kissed palette. After the three principal characters arrive in the Texan panhandle, the camera obsesses over the golden ocean of wheat swaying like waves in the wind. Whether workers traipse through the stalks or critters scurry about the ground underneath, Malick’s camera rarely leaves the endless rolling fields of gold. Against this backdrop Malick tells his story of turn-of-the-century nomads who head west to find seasonal work during the harvest. Bill (Richard Gere) is possibly on the run from the law after a violent incident at a factory in Chicago, so he convinces his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) to make a break with him. The story takes off slowly as Malick seems more concerned with plunging us into the Texan plains than explicitly setting the main plot in motion – though he does this too, just a bit more subtly. These early moments form the best stretches of the film. Malick unexpectedly captures an “old time” nostalgic America now resigned to myths and legends. There’s a refreshing playfulness to these characters’ daily lives – both adult and child – in a pre-technologically immersed world. Children chase each other through the wheat fields, workers dance around the fire by night, and tap-dancing performers take the stage on wooden platforms. Though the circumstances are far from ideal for these wandering Americans, they find ways to entertain themselves nonetheless. The farmer’s elaborate house is omnipresent, however, a fixture of the background in most early shots, a constant reminder that their lives are first and foremost work before play.

Malick brings the farmer’s home to the forefront as the farmer himself (Sam Shepard) begins spending more time around the pickers – specifically Abby. It becomes obvious that he’s taken a liking to her, and when Bill overhears that the farmer may die within the year due to some unspoken illness, he urges Abby to get closer to him in turn. The farmer’s love only grows, and at Bill’s insistence, Abby agrees to marry him against her better judgment. The story then becomes a waiting game as the lovers, pretending to be siblings, anxiously bide their time until the farmer passes away presumably leaving his wealth to his new bride. Alongside this tangled web of deception and volatile emotions (Bill must grapple with his own idea as it begins to crawl under his skin when he sees Abby and her new husband together, the farmer is uneasy with the relationship these “siblings” share, and Abby remains conflicted over the lie she leads while possibly falling in love with the farmer as well), Malick grants us a window into the thoughts of the film’s youngest character Bill’s sister Linda. Furthering Sissy Spacek’s supplemental narration in Badlands, Linda provides even less anecdotal information and more childlike philosophical ramblings. She knows and sees everything that Bill and Abby do, but she maturely reserves judgment. She strives to enjoy and understand the world, but she also precociously grasps that the line between good and evil is sometimes thinner than we might think.

This tension between good and evil, right and wrong, is no mistake either. Malick’s entire body of work is imbued with a deep sense of religion – more specifically, Christianity. A lot of viewers read a sort of vague pantheistic spiritualism in his films, which, to be fair, makes sense given the amount of screen time (and sometimes even narrative in the case of The New World) he lends to nature and the world around us. From Badlands to To the Wonder, the director has always been concerned with humankind’s relation to the environment. But, there are also undoubtedly Christian undertones (and sometimes more explicitly so as in the case of The Tree of Life) in all of his films. Not much is known about Malick’s personal life, but we do that he comes from an Episcopal background and studied philosophy at both Harvard and Oxford. Whether his faith turned sour and has since influenced his art like Bergman or Dreyer, or he has come to simply accept it like Scorsese’s claim that he’ll always be Catholic, we’ll likely never know and his work doesn’t provide many clues. But, the grappling with faith still remains. With Days of Heaven, the themes are less direct than say The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, or even To the Wonder with that film’s doubting priest, but its brief exploration of morality in the characters of Bill and Abby, told from the naïve perspective of Linda, is welcome and refreshing in a cinema that typically leaves faith on the sidelines or uses it as an easy target for criticism. After the brokenhearted farmer finally discovers the couple’s secret, a swarm of locusts of biblical proportions ravishes the wealthy landowner’s crops. And, when the dry wheat fields catch fire during a scuffle between Bill and the farmer, all the characters’ fates are sealed.

There are no grand sweeping statements on universal morality here, but Malick does seem to suggest what goes around comes around. In the end, his trio must live with the consequences of what they’ve done – Abby especially is full of regret and vows to lead a better life – but he’s also surprisingly nonjudgmental in his denouement. As the three escape the farm on a raft down the river, Linda remarks, “Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.” It’s a strange, yet unexpectedly profound close that doesn’t let these characters off the hook (Bill is eventually caught and gunned down), but is surprisingly humanist in its appeal to see the potential good in every person. Sometimes it pays off – Abby gets a second chance; and sometimes it doesn’t – Bill pays the ultimate price for his transgressions. And then there’s Linda. She escapes the boarding house Abby finds for her, makes off with a former friend from the farm, and wanders down the train tracks going nowhere and yet always going somewhere. Out in God’s country there’s always something beautiful to see.

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Badlands

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1973)

Innocence Lost

From the very beginning, Terrence Malick was poised to be different. He’s often justifiably lumped in with the other daring new talents on the American film scene during the 1970s – a “movement” that would come to be known as New Hollywood sparked by Arthur Penn’s influential Bonnie and Clyde – and yet his debut feature Badlands suggested a wholly singular approach altogether. Of course, with greats Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life behind us, it’s easy to see where Malick was headed with his debut. Its tale of two forbidden young lovers on a road trip killing spree offers somewhat of an alternate take on the Bonnie and Clyde story, and yet Malick uses the realist techniques of this period to highlight the beauty in nature, not grittiness; sheds light on the reality of violence, but it’s never grisly; and chronicles the downfall of the increasingly popular antihero, but it’s neither tragedy nor social commentary.

Badlands, then, plays like a work of Malick’s pupating signature aesthetic that would come fully into itself with Days of Heaven five years later. It’s his first and last conventional film before he became entrenched in the metaphysical and the power of image and sound over plot. But, Badlands is no lightweight compared to its grander, arguably better, successors. It’s certainly a work of an artist with a fresh and seemingly rare view of the world. Where many of his American contemporaries looked around the post-counterculture landscape and only saw ugliness, Malick witnessed glimpses of beauty. “I thought what a fine place it was,” impressionable, young Holly (Sissy Spacek) says of this world. She may very well be speaking for Malick himself.

Though later films would explore this to a much greater extent, Badlands finds Malick at the intersection between humankind and nature. To escape the rigid strictures of society keeping them apart, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly retreat into the wilderness together. Kit teaches Holly how to live off the land, and Malick allows the camera to linger on close-ups of the forest teeming with life. The pair is forced to abandon their refuge in the woods, but not because of any inability for human and nature to coexist peacefully – something Malick would go on to explore further in The New World – but because of other outside human forces. Many films have documented the harsh reality of the wild and man’s inability to thrive there, but, crucially, Badlands makes no such claim and posits humankind as its own adversary.

Malick’s primary concern, then, becomes the mythologizing of the outlaw. In this way, it’s a perfect fit amongst its New Hollywood contemporaries, but it’s also more compelling than the more famous works of Penn, Peckinpah, and Hopper. Kit is a rebel in the vein of Clyde Barrow, Pike Bishop, or “Captain America” and Billy, but the story is not told from his perspective. From the film’s opening scene, Malick posits teenage Holly as the film’s primary voice through an unprecedented ongoing use of voiceover narration. We first see Kit through the lens of Holly’s naiveté as she repeatedly gives him the benefit of the doubt and then through a new lens as she comes to see his destructive ways for what they are. “Goes to show how you can know a person and not know a person at the same time,” she intones. Badlands, then, is the story of this loss of innocence.

Malick expertly captures this notion throughout with the bouncy, childlike composition “Gassenhauser” by Carl Orff and the diary-like quality the film’s narrative follows. Each encounter and subsequent murder reads like a new entry as Holly slowly realizes the mental and emotional instability of her lover. In one telling sequence, Kit burns down Holly’s home to destroy the evidence of his first murder, and we watch as the totems of her childhood – dolls, toys, instruments – become engulfed in flames. There’s no turning back for her after this, and both Holly and Kit know it.

Malick spends the final moments of the film with Kit alone, separated from Holly who’s given herself up. Holly’s voiceover reveals that Kit knows his resistance is futile, but resist he does nonetheless. The police officers and soldiers tasked with this statewide manhunt engage Kit in the most unexpected of ways. Once arrested, he’s treated like a hero of sorts. He’s likened to James Dean (for the second time in the film). It’s as if Malick’s held a mirror up for his audience to look in. We’ve seen the death and destruction Kit has wrought, and yet we’re undeniably fascinated by him. Fortunately, even as the two are reunited in handcuffs heading back to South Dakota, Holly reveals what happens next. Kit is tried and executed for his crimes, and Holly is pardoned. She never tries to go back to him for she knows that their days of feigned idyll are over. There’s no turning back now. The same is true for the film’s creator. Badlands set in motion one of the most accomplished and revered careers in recent filmmaking history. It’s an essential work of Malick’s and one that deserves revisiting time and again even after he’s come so far.

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