Nature’s Boy

The films of Terrence Malick, from Badlands to Tree of Life

by Philip Matthews

Of all the approximately 20 million words written about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life since it debuted at Cannes last May, maybe the best – or at least the funniest — came from John Waters in December, in his Artforum top ten for 2011. Waters wrote: “You’d think I’d hate this film, and I almost did — until I realized it’s the best New Age, heterosexual, Christian movie of the year.”

Almost everyone else had The Tree of Life in their top tens as well. It won the Village Voice poll of 95 American critics, with 307 votes ahead of A Separation’s 251 and Melancholia’s 246. It was film of the year for the American Film Institute, the Sight and Sound critics, the Film Comment critics, the Cannes judges, the Chicago film critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics and so on and so on, although the same crowd who think Ricky Gervais is funny – the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – failed to nominate it as one of their best at last month’s Golden Globes.

If you think such things matter, then the biggest and last hurdle will be the Oscars later this month, at which The Tree of Life is one of nine movies nominated for best film and Malick is one of five nominated directors (he was also nominated back in 1998 for The Thin Red Line). But you would be foolish to put money on him winning either of those. The Oscar buzz – or the group mind of entertainment journalists and voters – appears to be backing Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, a film famous for its revival of the silent era. Which is nice, but in The Tree of Life, Malick achieved something beyond that – he came up with a new silent film language that is experimental, subjective and deeply emotional. It was the culmination of a process that started about 40 years ago.

“The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return. I thought what a fine place it was, full of things that people can look into and enjoy.”
Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands.

It’s easy to think of Malick films coming in pairs. In the 1970s: Badlands and Days of Heaven. Before those, according to the very sketchy biographical information we have, he grew up in Oklahoma and Texas as the eldest of three brothers, studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford – the Oxford stint was as a Rhodes Scholar – but quit before finishing his doctorate. Then he studied film-making at the AFI Conservatory and got Badlands out just before he was 30.

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In the early scenes of Badlands, the green suburbia of 1950s small-town South Dakota looks much like the suburbia of Waco, Texas in the same era in The Tree of Life, and we know that the setting of the latter was at least partly autobiographical. How much was Badlands a memory film? Malick was a teenager when the real case of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate – homicidal drifter and teenage runaway – happened. The film initially feels like perfunctory 70s realism – the boy meets the girl, they kill her dad, they burn the house and hit the road – and it really opens up about 30 minutes in, once Malick is through with the set-up. The outlaw romance road film is an artefact of the era, although there is no Bonnie and Clyde-style idolisation and it’s clear that Malick has little sympathy for the sullen anti-hero (Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers), thus inaugurating a career-long interest in the interrogation of machismo, of the clash between a man’s public role and his inner life. Richard Gere, a similar rogue figure in Days of Heaven, is taken even less seriously than Kit.

Badlands is essentially a poetic film about juvenile delinquency – the camera takes in a yellow moon over the plains, cloud formations, car lights at night – that anticipates the more self-conscious beauty of Days of Heaven, a film of impressive sights but less narrative drive. In these first two films, the protagonists are unstable men but their stories are narrated by naïve young women – sometimes, it’s unreliable narration and sometimes it opens up a gulf between what we hear and what we see. If we can’t entirely trust the narration, and if we only hear from the young women who follow them, then what do we make of the male heroes? Sheen’s Kit is all posture, self-stylised as a James Dean figure, even celebrating his notoriety by the end, but lacking in charisma. Gere’s Bill in Days of Heaven is even less readable, little more than a cypher for Malick’s moral questions. “There is half-devil and half-angel in him,” the girl (Linda Manz) says, but that’s too grand. He’s just another feckless opportunist.

In both films, an idyll comes after the set-up, making a second act. In Days of Heaven, this is about the pleasures of not working (“The rich got it figured out”); in Badlands, it’s scenes of Kit and Holly hiding out in a tree house in the woods, which was apparently an idea of production designer Jack Fisk, a career-long collaborator. In both cases, a Malickian gallery of the good life begins to develop: close-ups of grass and trees, sunlight, people splashing in rivers. Holly even speaks of trees rustling overhead like spiritual whispers, a weird anticipation of the Malick soundtrack from The Thin Red Line on. Inevitably, there is a Fall: in both films, the end of the idyll introduces the third act. In both films, a rapturously observed fire creates a break in the story: early on in Badlands, late in Days of Heaven.

From the beginning, improvisation was an important part of the method. One senses, purely by the results on screen, that some actors are more open to such methods than others (how to account for the strange flatness of the acting in Days of Heaven?). On the Badlands DVD extra “Absence of Malick” – and yes, of course the publicity-shy Malick is absent – Fisk talks about a long shoot of 16 weeks with some crew walking off, unable to cope with Malick’s open-ended directorial approach. By Days of Heaven, the camera had become more mobile and the editing more experimental.

“Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”
Private Train (John Dee Smith) in The Thin Red Line.

Watch out for animals in Malick films, they usually mean something (he’s a philosopher so everything means something). When rewatching Days of Heaven, one of the most startling things was seeing herds of bison in some shots, on a Texas farm during World War I. We associate bison with pre-European settlement and during the idyllic parts of the film, you might even imagine that the whole nightmare of American history had been rewound.

After Days of Heaven, it was 20 years before he directed another film (he travelled and read and bird-watched, got divorced and remarried, lived in Paris for a time, wrote some screenplays).The next pair of films – The Thin Red Line and The New World – were more complex than the first. Both had multiple narrators and drew on historical sources. In both, the idyllic scenes are at the start, as “primitive” worlds made to look holy, operating without selfishness, property, needless violence and obvious hierarchy. It is almost an ethnographic sensibility and perhaps a little old-fashioned. In The Thin Red Line, they are Melanesian people in the Pacific; in The New World, Powhatan Indians in Virginia. In each film, a western man enters this world and is either part of the process by which it is damaged completely or is so changed by his war experiences that he cannot return to it. Versions of the Fall, in both cases.

In The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones’ novel about Guadalcanal, Witt (Jim Caviezel) has gone AWOL and is living among Melanesian people. He is brought back to the war by Welsh (Sean Penn) and a scene follows that would lead those who are trawling for Christian symbolism to think of the confrontation between Christ and Pilate. “I can take anything you dish out,” Witt tells Welsh. “I’m twice the man you are.” Witt tells Welsh that there is a world beyond this one; Welsh refuses to see or acknowledge it. Witt talks with a peaceful certainty; the more macho and militaristic Welsh never looks entirely convinced of his own position (ten years later, Malick would get Penn back to do much the same thing in The Tree of Life).

The voice-overs do something entirely different from here on. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz is good on this, and his Malick video essay is worth watching (link here). After The Thin Red Line, the Malick voice-over no longer has any connection with the standard Hollywood show-and-tell and instead becomes a way of relating the thoughts of a range of characters. It is not an interior monologue or comment on action but is closer to unvoiced or even unsayable feeling: “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”; “You are my sons, my dear sons”; “What voice is this that speaks within me?” Imagine the characters simply saying these lines under their breath to themselves and they might seem risible and pretentious, so instead you should see these voice-overs as an attempt to get to the very base of consciousness. The result is a point of view that is both introverted and observant.

There are family dynamics in The Thin Red Line than anticipate The Tree of Life. It is Staros (Elias Koteas) who thinks of the troops as his “sons”. He is more pacifistic and defies the suicidal orders of Tall (Nick Nolte); together, they mirror the saintly mother and autocratic father in The Tree of Life. As noted, Penn’s Welsh is akin to the older brother and Caviezel’s Witt to a younger one. As in The Tree of Life, Penn has something to learn from his brother’s death. But beyond all this, it is a highly effective war film – few others have been as good as showing the psychological failure, the fear and terror, of soldiers in the field. If you held a gun to my head, I might say it’s his second best film.

In The New World, the almost childlike life of the Powhatan Indians is interrupted by the arrival of English ships, much as the sight of an American ship means the end of Witt’s timeless, dream-like life at the start of The Thin Red Line. Like Witt, John Smith (Colin Farrell) defects and briefly lives in a pre-European paradise with Pocahontas, although he too must go back (“Where would we live? In the woods? In a treetop?” he asks Pocahontas, reminding us of Badlands). By the time Smith’s commanding officer (Christopher Plummer) is telling the English that “Eden lies about us still”, we can see that it has already been corrupted. Again fire – the burning of the Powhatan settlement – marks the end of things.

The closing minutes of The New World are almost a master class in storytelling through images rather than words. The religiosity was becoming more overt, too: characters were not just thinking, they were addressing a supreme being, asking it questions (and not just a Judeo-Christian supreme being). In both films, there is another new motif: shots of people swimming underwater, filmed from below. You can read it as a form of freedom, a closeness to nature, but it took on a different meaning in The Tree of Life, after which it was possible to look back and reconsider what the image might mean in The Thin Red Line and The New World.

“I’m your father. A family can have only one head and that is the father.”
Captain Bosche (George Clooney) in The Thin Red Line.

By now you know that Malick likes certain images. Sunlight through leaves as you look up at the trees (the last shot of The New World). Legs of swimmers, grass swaying in the wind, waterfalls. Flocks of birds moving as one. The images feel like straightforward visual shorthand for a divine presence, and if you aren’t willing to appreciate religious art – which you don’t have to be religious to do – then they are easy to mock as New Age, corny, treacly, whatever. That and all the whispered, heartfelt voice-overs, now directed at God in the more overtly Judeo-Christian sense (“Where were you? You let a boy die”).

What kind of film would The Tree of Life be if you cut the 20-minute “creation” sequence – the birth of stars and planets, the controversial dinosaurs with their origin of pity – and the “resurrection” epilogue? If you lost the – hate the phrase – cosmic dimension. It would be like taking the apes and the star child out of 2001: it would be saner, more accessible, less risky, less ambitious, more ordinary. But actually, the discussion of those trickier, polarising bits of The Tree of Life has tended to overshadow the real achievement of the down-to-earth middle section, which is closer to the simple storytelling of Badlands. The intimate, closely observed scenes of family life over a number of years in suburban Waco, Texas, with the autocratic father (Brad Pitt), the gentle mother (Jessica Chastain) and the three boys is remarkably open, fresh and intuitive film-making. The storytelling is almost entirely free of dialogue; it could be done with the occasional silent-movie intertitle and you would miss nothing.

In an accompanying documentary, “Exploring the Tree of Life”, you get a sense of a method that was more improvisational than ever on The Tree of Life. Malick and his small crew – including the excellent cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – roamed entire suburban blocks which were open as one large, outdoor set, often without a script in mind and using only natural light. Jack Fisk talks about some of that in the clip at this link. That approach accounts for the deep feelings in this film: it feels like the childhood of almost everyone who sees it, or at least the selective and replayed memories of childhood. The way weather felt, the way spaces felt, the perspectives you had. The simultaneous love and anger. A growing sense of the world beyond the family, of people who are richer and poorer, of injustices and unfairness. A realisation that there was a time before you existed (“Tell us a story from before we can remember”). All the attendant emotions come back as you watch it.

Now, the swimming underwater motif is powerfully recast as a metaphor for being born. Bodies of water are intermediary spaces and the very last shot in this life and death haunted film is a bridge over a river. But why is there a shot of a mask in water near the end, within the resurrection, when there are no masks worn in the film? (Maybe Kierkegaard’s idea about the “midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask”). And what could the sunflowers mean? All of the film’s many images can be obsessively replayed and analysed until the end of time by legions of cultists, as has happened to The Shining, according to this New York Times story, which might also have one of the world’s most unusual newspaper corrections (link here).

You know that The Tree of Life film was both ambitious and personal – Malick had a brother who died young, who was musically gifted – but the family scenes also get to a universality of experience. In The Thin Red Line, there was some musing on the family of humanity, which has been broken up by violence. In The Tree of Life, that is the literal family, before fall outs and separation, before your identity is fully formed. The idyllic world is no longer historically or geographically remote, but is a time in your own life that you long to get to but cannot (“How do I get back, where they are?”). Hence the daydreams that Penn’s Jack O’Brien has of a kind of resurrection of the dead on an endless beach.

This is a utopianism in which your own life was utopia. A common enough emotion: nostalgia, the sense of lack. In his book Living in the End Times, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about our feelings of exclusion from nature, or the utopia we imagine nature to be, as “external observers of the paradise barred to us”. Try as we might, we can never fully be in it. In his first four films, Malick shows us moments of paradise and moments of exclusion, but in his fifth and most personal one, Malick got right to the source: exclusion came with gradual self-consciousness and self-awareness and is impossible to undo. At the end of The Tree of Life, Jack O’Brien at least has accepted it.