Which Ones to Watch: The Films of Terrence Malick

With his seventh feature, Knight of Cups, expanding into more theaters, now seems the time to take a look into the career of American cinema’s most poetic filmmakers – the abstract and emotional work of Terrence Malick. Characterized by their gorgeous visuals and preference of mood over plot (especially in later movies), Malick’s films are among the most acclaimed in film criticism, but if you’re not accustomed to his slow-moving and philosophical style, it may be a bit off putting. This guide is not to be taken as a good or not good guide-I’m quite the fan of all of them and think they’re all worth watching, but more of a how to start out guide: which ones are essential viewing, which are for later viewing, and what might be for completists only.

Badlands (1973)

After uncredited draft work on Dirty Harry and Drive, He Said in 1971, Malick made his debut with this New Hollywood era classic about a young couple on the run for murder in 1959. While taking some cues from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands keeps its perspective with 15 year old Holly (Sissy Spacek), her naive and romantically cliched voiceovers providing a stark contrast with the brash and violent actions of her partner Kit (Martin Sheen) who seems to have no regard for anyone other than her. The most plot driven of Malick’s filmography, it balances its tone wonderfully and boasts stellar work from Sheen and Spacek. Sheen’s Kit has so much personality and infectious charisma, it’s almost no wonder Holly gets swept up in his charm, despite his brutality towards both those he feel wronged him and innocent people in his self-destructive path. Early Malick themes present themselves here such as violence in the realm of nature, a search into the soul of a conflicted man and philosophically inclined voiceover. Even over four decades later, Badlands remains one of the strongest and best debuts in American film and a great introduction to its director. A good intro into his early work, very much Essential Viewing.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Set in 1916 against wheat filled plains, Days of Heaven follows husband and wife Bill and Abby (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) posing as brother and sister, looking to trick a dying farmer (Sam Shepherd) out of his lands and fortune. Best known for its stunning visuals, it was almost entirely shot during the “magic hour” – where the sun has set or is just about to rise, but the light gives the film a golden hue that makes for some unforgettable sequences, like a locust infestation that devastates the crops. Shepherd gives a standout performance as the farmer, sincere in his affection for Abby while growing more suspicious of the so-called siblings as the story goes on. Like Badlands, the majority of perspective is from a young girl -Linda (Linda Manz), Bill’s sister; her voiceover providing commentary on the plot and the characters’ surroundings. A relationship drama more concerned with mood and visuals to tell its story, this film might be best viewed after getting acclimated with Malick’s distinctive style, best saved for Later Viewing.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

After a twenty year gap between films and an incredibly private life (even pictures of the director are rare), Malick grew an almost cultish following before coming back with a sprawling and massive war epic set during the Guadalcanal Campaign in World War II. Taking his questioning of man’s nature and grace to the grand stage of the battlefield, Malick looks for truth against the horrors of war, again contrasting the violence against the natural beauty of the world and the inward thoughts of the characters. A massive cast including Jim Caviezel, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson among many, many others do extraordinary work providing differing viewpoints of the war, Koteas and Nolte in particular are at their best with Koteas as a commander refusing to unnecessarily sacrifice his men and Nolte as his commanding officer determined to lead a successful attack. One of the most radical war films ever made, The Thin Red Line won Malick the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival and picked up seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Director (ultimately losing to Shakespeare in Love and Steven Spielberg’s direction of the other great war movie of ’98, Saving Private Ryan). The battlefield sequences are stunning, John Toll contributes fantastic cinematography and Hanz Zimmer’s score is still being used in different movies and trailers today. Definitely Essential Viewing for anyone looking to get into the director at his big budget best.

The New World (2005)

A telling of the founding of Jamestown in 1607, The New World imagines the story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) as an existential and free-flowing drama against the English settling in with the Native Americans. Painfully authentic in its sets, props and costuming while playing a bit looser with the historical narrative, the film filters the common Malick themes of human experience and violence in the midst of nature through the lens of discovery – not only of the colonists and Smith reacting to the setting and cultures of the locals, but also of the Native Americans having to deal with the colonists encroaching on their way of life and Pocahontas’ eventual embrace of the English culture. Kilcher’s Pocahontas makes for a great central character and performance to center the narrative and in Malick’s first outing with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (recent record breaker with his third consecutive Academy Award for Best Cinematography), the film could not look any more beautiful. It may be a bit too slow and meandering for some though and may be best saved for Later Viewing. Depends on how you feel about The Thin Red Line‘s quieter moments.

The Tree of Life (2011)

This is where things start to get weird. Despite epics that take place during World War II and colonial America, this is (and will likely remain) Malick’s most ambitious film. A family in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s as remembered by young Jack (Hunter McCracken in younger age, Sean Penn as an adult), The Tree of Life frames the memories of a boy’s small town life within the entirety of human existence, showing the creation of the universe and speculating about the eternal beaches of the afterlife. The director is in total command of his craft as he presents the familial scenes as small slices of life that seem to start and stop involuntarily – rarely have I seen the act of remembering so accurately rendered on film. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt (in what I would argue as one of his best performances) as Jack’s parents provide the two pillars of grace and nature that Jack is torn between as he grows up. As older Jack wrestles with the loss of a loved one, the narrative asks its characters to consider the problems of their lives within the context of the larger world around them and the entire spectrum of time – how do our lives compare with the eternal and how do our experiences mold our soul? Heady and heavy topics to tackle, this film will definitively not work for everyone, and I’m not quite sure it’s supposed to. Even with its grandiose ambition, the film still feels very personal to its filmmaker – as if these were the questions he’s been trying to find a way to ask over his entire career and in his life. A film many feel passionate about on both the love and hate side, The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or  at the Cannes Film Festival and received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Director (losing both to The Artist) as well as Best Cinematography for Lubezki (which lost to Hugo). For anyone looking to get into the mindset of Malick’s later work or for those willing to take a chance on an exhilarating and experimental piece of art, this is absolutely Essential Viewing.

To The Wonder (2012)

Stripped down to basically a three character drama, To the Wonder is the most bare of Malick’s filmography. Ben Affleck, Olgo Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams make up a sort of love triangle after Affleck’s Nick brings Tatiana (Kurylenko) to Oklahoma from Europe to further their new romance. As the relationship starts to go through trials, Tatiana seeks the help of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) and Nick starts to reconnect with Jane (McAdams), a friend from his youth. Almost entirely disregarding person to person dialogue for whispering voiceover, this film gets most of its milage out of how invested its audience is with its characters who at times seem like less of characters than philosophical muses. Affleck’s blank slate deflects any kind of emotional connection, but Kurylenko and especially Bardem find the nuance in such a small story with big emotions and questions. A moving sequence late in the film with Bardem’s priest providing voiceover about his faith against the resolution of the characters’ arcs is a particular highlight. Even in a minor work, the film is still very much worth watching, even if it’s best left For Completists Only.

Knight of Cups (2016)

Bringing us to the most recent and wild Knight of Cups. Christian Bale returns to the fold as Rick, a screenwriter in Los Angeles trying to avoid the problems of his life by indulging in all the distractions he can find in women, parties and more women. Feeling more like disjointed jazz in its style, with flashes of scenes and characters dipping in and out of frame, Knight of Cups is at its best when confronting the root of its protagonist’s problems. Rick has some grief to work through with his father and brother (Brian Dennehy and Wes Bentley, both contributing the most lively performances) and is trying to get through the emotions surrounding the end of his marriage to Nancy (Cate Blanchett). By far the most abstract and surreal of Malick’s work – if David Lynch mellowed out a lot, hired Lubezki as his cinematographer and made a movie about excess with underlying Christian themes, it would resemble this. Another polarizing movie that both critics and audiences seem to be split on – I don’t know whether it’s encouraging or not that only two people walked out of the screening I was in, the narrative threads here are tenuous at best, but again, keeping an open mind to the fractured nature of the film is the best way to approach it. Bale gives ever the more interesting cipher type performance than Affleck, but it’s hard to keep track of which voiceover belongs to whom, and this is better left to Later Viewing after finding out how much of the experimental bits of The Tree of Life worked for you.

There are as many defenders of each and every one of these films as there are detractors who accuse them as overrated, pretentious or both. Some of the films work well for people while other films leave them bored or cold; I personally enjoy them all for different reasons, and hope that at least people who disagree can at least acknowledge how rare it is for a filmmaker to consistently stick to his ambitious approach throughout a long and interesting career. At 72, Malick still infuses his films with energy and lofty ideas and shows no signs of slowing down – another film titled Weightless with Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara and Christian Bale seems to be completed (Malick’s productions are notoriously in the editing room for a long time) and Voyage of Time, a documentary about the universe is in post-production. Where they find their place in Malick’s filmography remains to be seen, but here’s to hoping they’ll be just as fascinating as everything that came before them.

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