The 100 Essential Directors Part 6

Ernst Lubitsch to Vincente Minnelli

by PopMatters Staff

18 August 2011


Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick
(1943 - present)

Three Key Films: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)

Underrated: The New World (2005) Of his five films, the only one to receive anything approaching mixed reviews has been his 2005 re-imagining of the old Pocahontas legend/history, all shot through with the heavy imagery of colliding worldviews, invasion and disease, nature and civilization. It is a long, meditative, and often troubling work, relying as it does on apparently outmoded ideas about the “noble savage” and a kind of “pre-post-colonial” approach to the trauma of contact. But, it is thoughtful, gorgeously shot, and hauntingly mysterious.

Unforgettable: The cellar in the field, Badlands. As a Bonnie and Clyde remake without any of the fun-loving countercultural spirit, Badlands asks viewers to get really comfortable with two impossibly appalling people. Martin Sheen (as a James Dean-wannabe serial killer) and Sissy Spacek (as his slow-witted but game companion) rustle through the film living out a kind of fantasy of outlaw freedom. They kill, they hide out, they kill again, and none of it is for anything, none of it matters, all of it is as empty as the great wide plains of the title. There is no scene in Badlands that better exemplifies the desperate psychopathology that motivates these characters than the amazingly mundane murder of two young people in a cellar in an empty field. They are herded into a hole in the ground, and then, after the lid is shut tight above them, Sheen just slips his gun barrel through an opening and fires a couple times. “Think I got ‘em?” 

The Legend: Terrence Malick, Hollywood’s greatest recluse, was (possibly) born in Ottawa, Illinois, and was raised in a variety of mid- and southwestern locations before heading into work on oil fields in his late teens. A terrifically clever young man, Malick attended Harvard and eventually Oxford University (though he failed to complete his degree in contemporary philosophy), and taught for a time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology while working as a journalist for several major national magazines. He turned to screenwriting, but directors failed to translate his work to screen in the manner he envisioned.

His first film as a director, 1973’s Badlands, was independently produced on a small budget. A startlingly confident debut, Badlands met rave reviews upon its first public screenings, and went on to become one of the standout films from the early 1970s, one of the greatest periods in Hollywood history. But, for this most revered of contemporary filmmakers, less has always been more. Since 1973, Malick has made just four more pictures. Thankfully, each has been a remarkable piece of work. Like Kubrick, with whom he shares more than just a few similarities, his films tend toward the meditative. They are all languidly paced, short on dialogue, exquisitely shot, and thematically dense. While never openly referencing his philosophical influences, one finds occasion to consider great and weighty ideas at every turn.

Evocative and highly cerebral, Malick’s films all play with the overlapping, competing, and troubled relationship between the natural and the constructed worlds. Prone to very long films—the original cut of Thin Red Line has been gauged at over ten hours, for example, and Malick shot over a million feet of film for The New World—he has always appeared to privilege atmosphere over narrative. Indeed, Malick’s pictures ask a lot of their audiences, but the rewards are so rich that one should never hesitate to dive in. A Pynchon-esque fame-shy loner, Malick disappeared for almost 20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, but has since amped up his output considerably. The Tree of Life (2011) was awarded the Palme D’Or this year but the film virtually polarized American audiences. Time will tell where this mystical, staggering work will place in the auteur’s canon. An as-yet untitled picture, a romance, which may or may not be about Frank Lloyd Wright, is in the can but will likely not be released for awhile yet if we know Malick. Stuart Henderson


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