The Malick World

Examining the monk of Mount Cinema

'It was my secret intention [with 'Days of Heaven'] to make the film experience more concrete, more direct,' said Terrence Malick (pictured on the film's set) to a French reporter in 1979. "It was my secret intention [with 'Days of Heaven'] to make the film experience more concrete, more direct," said Terrence Malick (pictured on the film's set) to a French reporter in 1979. (Paramount Pictures)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 29, 2011

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Some creative artists start to slow down when they hit their 60s. Terrence Malick appears to be speeding up. After directing two of the finest films of the 1970s, “Badlands’’ (1973) and the incandescent “Days of Heaven’’ (1978), the Texas-born filmmaker went off the grid for two decades. For years he was the Bigfoot of auteurists, variously sighted in Paris, Hollywood, or Austin, Texas, rumored to be working on personal projects like “Q,’’ a dramatization of the origins of life, or writing drafts of a Jerry Lee Lewis biopic for the studios.

Then, suddenly, in 1998 he returned with “The Thin Red Line,’’ a 170-minute all-star meditation on men at war that some moviegoers found devastatingly profound and others found supremely silly. Seven years elapsed before Malick released “The New World,’’ a magisterial (or pretentious, depending on who’s talking) revisionist take on the story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas.

Now, a mere six years on, Malick’s latest and most ambitious film is here. “The Tree of Life,’’ starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, relative newcomer Jessica Chastain, three young boys, and two dinosaurs, won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival after, typically, dividing audiences and drawing both cheers and boos. His next film, an as-yet-untitled romance starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, is already in the can, and there’s been talk of repurposing some of the more cosmic footage from “Tree of Life’’ into an IMAX head trip. Can directing a “Glee’’ episode be far behind? If so, can you imagine the ruminative voice-overs and soaring camera moves in the halls of William McKinley High?

The fact is that Malick is one of the few genuine mavericks of modern moviemaking, and we are lucky to be living at a time when his creative juices seem to be heating up. A survivor of a 1970s New Hollywood that itself was heavily influenced by 1960s European filmmaking, he has resurfaced in our crassly commercial multiplex era like a prehistoric fish in a trawl line. And he thrives: “The Tree of Life’’ is a serenely confident, borderline-bonkers magnum opus in which Malick exorcises some of his most personal demons by staging them on an unimaginably grand scale.

The central scenes in “Tree’’ take place in post-World War II suburban Texas, between a tightly wound father (Pitt), a graceful mother (Chastain), and their three young sons, the oldest of whom (played by Hunter McCracken) comes into increasing conflict with his dad. Malick bookends these sequences of domestic paradise and rebellion with a full-on re-creation of the birth of the universe (visualized in collaboration with special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull, who worked on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey’’) and with modern-day scenes in which the grown son, a troubled architect played by Penn, tries to recapture and resolve the past.

Not all of it works. The Origins of Life section is astounding, nutty, altogether wonderful. The Penn scenes drag. There’s a surreal finale on a beach that Malick should have given back to Fellini and that tastes of forced closure. “Tree of Life’’ isn’t the director’s finest movie (that would be “Days of Heaven’’ or “The New World’’) but it is his most unabashedly Malick-ian — a fusing of the microcosmic and macrocosmic, the mundane and the holy, the pretentious and the profound. And, like a fractal, it contains all his earlier films.

To place the new film next to Malick’s first, for instance, is to see concordances of place and mood and the eerie beauty of red-haired women. “Badlands’’ came as a shock in 1973 not only because it fictionalized the 1958 spree killings of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate into a numb romance but because it found a poetics of banality that felt disturbing and new.

Most viewers thought the gauche voice-overs delivered by Sissy Spacek’s Holly were intended as an ironic commentary on the character’s spiritual emptiness. Actually, that wasn’t Malick’s intention at all. In a 1975 interview — one of the few before he stopped talking to the press altogether and fashioned his reputation as the monk of Mount Cinema — the director said of his penchant for audio pensées, “When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.’’

In “The Tree of Life,’’ even more than in “The Thin Red Line’’ and “The New World,’’ the soundtrack is filled with human questioning — murmured prayers from the characters to a God they’re not sure exists. Malick is, though, and “Tree’’ is his most overtly religious movie, with Chastain’s character serving as both an ethereal Mother Mary and all-forgiving Christ figure. Because he’s more transcendental than traditionalist, Malick sees God everywhere and in the details, which is why his movies dwell on images of nature and why his shots place man in an unprivileged place within that nature.

This is what links the new film with “Days of Heaven,’’ still the most sensually beautiful of his movies. A primal period love triangle between a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard in his first major film role) and two migrant workers (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) in 1916 Texas, the film foregrounds the natural world until it assumes an almost biblical majesty, with sunsets from the beginning of time and locusts and prairie fires that seem like plagues out of Exodus.

Some viewers dismissed the imagery as mere pretty pictures, unyoked to the story line and therefore shallow, and they will probably say the same about “The Tree of Life,’’ which is always ravishing to look at. It’s important to understand, though, that for this director image is meaning and that the deeper connection the characters seek is right there for the taking, if they could only see it.

Malick sees it and, thanks to cinematographers Néstor Almendros (“Days of Heaven’’) and Emmanuel Lubezki (“Tree of Life’’), we do, too. In 1979, Malick told a French reporter, “It was my secret intention [with ‘Days of Heaven’] to make the film experience more concrete, more direct. And, for the audience, I am tempted to say, experience it like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature.’’

This is, in fact, what drives some viewers batty about Malick’s work and sends others into raptures: That what should be known quantities become spiritual walks in the countryside. “The Thin Red Line’’ was ostensibly a war film — it was adapted from a novel by James Jones, of “From Here to Eternity’’ fame — and it came out the same year as Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,’’ an equally stunning but much more conventional work. The countryside we walk through in “Thin Red Line’’ is the island of Guadalcanal during the US assault of 1942, a lush tropical landscape in which Malick sees both heaven and hell.

But genre is secondary with this director, and moviegoers expecting patriotic blood and thunder were appalled to find a film that deals explicitly with the inner sensitivities of young men in combat: their fears, strengths, doubts, nobility, and an exalted bond with other men that, in this film, is close to the perfect love of agape.

“The Tree of Life’’ applies that love — and the sense of betrayal when it is gone — to the domestic family unit. The new movie looks like a coming-of-age film, but, remember, genre is only a container. The emotional life of the oldest son, as played by McCracken and recalled in voice-over by Penn, is a journey from the Eden of early childhood to an expulsion from the Garden that comes with realizing a parent’s tyranny and ultimately confronting it.

The portrayal of the mother and father in “Tree of Life’’ is, if anything, an over-explicit version of the duality found in so many of Malick’s films. Women are the earth, the essence, the creators, while men conquer and explore and destroy. Women are; men do. In “The New World,’’ it’s John Smith (Colin Farrell) who sees the Native American girl the movie never refers to as Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) as a prize to be wooed and won, the human correlative of his newfound land. He discards her for other shores, but since men can be nurturers as well, she finds in John Rolfe (Christian Bale) a husband who truly sees her as a person.

The father in “Tree of Life’’ sees who his wife is, and it both exhilarates and terrifies him. Pitt gives one of his finer performances here, the pride working in the clench of his jaw, self-pity warring with self-knowledge, but Chastain brings a heart-stopping grace to a narrow, idealized role. The camera adores her, and in the director’s aesthetic that’s divinity enough. She is phusis.

She is what? As a young man, Malick studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, and he was especially drawn to Heidegger’s explorations of a greater, more unified reality that underlies Aristotelian concepts of Being. Phusis was a word and a concept the German philosopher rescued from the ancient Greek, one he translated as the “emerging-abiding sway’’ of objects. It means the specific nature of things and how that nature reflects a greater field of potentiality: The ideal rose that makes this one rose possible.

How do you translate such a concept to cinema? By making each shot, each character, glow with transcendent potential; by making this mother all mothers, this son all sons (or this sun all suns). Malick’s movies can seem silly because we ultimately have to apply language to the films we watch, and language is a poor substitute for what he’s aiming at: The moving image as ontological signpost, the camera frame that reveals the universe, the shot of the rose that becomes all roses. It’s an impossible task, doomed by definition. Yet enough of us are drawn back to Malick’s films again and again, never sure whether he is failing us or we are failing him.

Ty Burr can be reached at To follow him, go to

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