Where to begin with Terrence Malick

A beginner’s path through the ecstatic, visionary films of Terrence Malick.

30 November 2017

By Charles Graham-Dixon

The Tree of Life (2011)

Why this might not seem so easy

Terrence Malick’s films divide opinion. Are they rhapsodically beautiful, visionary works of art, or – as some have described his recent output – “self-parodic”, and plumbing “new boreholes of cringe”?
Broadly speaking, the director’s career can be divided into three sections. First, the 1970s, when as part of the New Hollywood, along with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Coppola and Michael Cimino, he made arguably his finest (and certainly his least divisive) works – Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).

The New World (2005)

Then there’s the films he made after his 20-year hiatus: Pacific war epic The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), his unique spin on the 17th-century tale of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. More recently, his work rate has picked up with the more experimental quadrilogy of films that he made between 2011 and 2017, including the spiritual drama The Tree of Life (2011) and his most recent, Song to Song (2017), a look at life, love and music.

Across his career, Malick movies are notable for their ambiguous, drifting voiceovers, used less to move the plot along and more to pose existential, reflective questions on life itself. The films are abundant with shots of nature, darkness and light, sunset and dusk. His narratives are often nonlinear and answers are not spoon-fed.
‘Breathtaking’, ‘poetic’, ‘sumptuous’ and ‘lyrical’ – these adjectives abound in critical discussions of Malick’s work, and there’s little doubt of its visual beauty, stirring, emotional use of music and dreamlike quality. Influencing filmmakers from Alejandro González Iñárritu to Paul Thomas Anderson, his films are meditative, philosophical examinations of nature and man’s place within the enormity and majesty of the universe.

The best place to start – Badlands

Badlands (1973)

For first timers, Malick’s feature debut, Badlands, remains the easiest jumping-off point. Based on the real 1958 murder spree of 18-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old accomplice, Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands follows young James Dean wannabe Kit (Martin Sheen) as he murders his way across Dakota and the Montana badlands in the company of young Holly (Sissy Spacek). From a narrative perspective, Badlands is Malick’s most conventional film. Events take place in a clear, chronological order over the period of one week in the lives of a hopelessly naive and at times chillingly psychopathic couple.
Very much a product of the New Hollywood of the 1970s and the new generation of fearless, creative American filmmakers, Badland’s Kit rejects authority and the old guard. Badlands was part of a new breed of cinema, which subverted cinematic norms with graphic yet cold depictions of violence. It was also the first Malick film to employ the voiceover technique that would characterise his work, though, unlike in later Malick films, Spacek’s dreamy narration helps to tell the story, showing Holly’s aloof, at times unmoved, response to the unfolding violence and chaos in her midst.

What to watch next

Days of Heaven (1978)

With Days of Heaven, there was no second album syndrome for Malick. This is a sweeping, almost ludicrously beautiful tale of doomed love on the endless plains of the Texas Panhandle. Sam Shepard is a terminally ill, cuckold landowner who is deceived by a pair of dirt-poor crop hands played by Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. The film’s real star, however, is the cinematography, started by Nestor Almendros and finished by Haskell Wexler after shooting overran. Much of the film was shot during magic hour, that fleeting period between sunset and dusk. As Ennio Morricone’s bewitching, bittersweet scores plays, images of silhouetted crop workers against the setting sun are a sight to behold.
After 20 wilderness years, Malick triumphantly returned with The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones’s novel of the same name. Ostensibly a film about the Guadalcanal campaign fought in the Solomon Islands during the Second World War, The Thin Red Line is interested in far more than combat. It’s mysterious and poetic, examining the mental anguish of war, the emotional cost to soldiers and their loved ones and, to quote Jones, “the thin red line that divides the sane from the mad and the living from the dead”.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Following The New World came 2011’s The Tree of Life, a deeply philosophical and visually staggering film that examines nothing less than the meaning of existence on Earth. Including sequences showing the creation of the universe, it also comprises the memories of a middle-aged man (Sean Penn), who recalls his upbringing in 1950s Texas. These scenes, starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and a trio of excellent child actors, stand out for their poetic beauty. With haunting use of light, flowing camerawork and a wonderful orchestral score from Alexandre Desplat, this visionary film pointed the way to a new phase in Malick’s career.

To the Wonder (2012)

Where not to start

While they contain the stunning pictures we associate with Malick, his latter-day romantic trio of To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2014) and Song to Song are much more of an acquired taste. Where the director’s meditative, philosophical voiceovers once felt vital and wondrous, for many viewers they now began to feel stale and gratuitous. Images of nature, once unique and reflective, risk appearing flouncy and overused.

Have audiences become tired of Malick’s style or have his films simply got worse? Indiewire critic David Ehrlich has pinpointed a sense of emptiness watching the new stuff: “My problem with his recent work isn’t its airiness, improvising or even the swirling. It’s the fact his films end up saying very little that isn’t cliché.”

Malick is certainly out there on a limb, and at this point it seems difficult to imagine him making a new movie that can unite the lovers and the haters once again. But film history is littered with great directors whose later films have initially been shut out in the cold by unsympathetic critics and audiences. Time will tell whether Malick’s believers are right, and whether his recent films are made to last. For Malick evangelist and Little White Lies editor David Jenkins, he “doesn’t make films anymore. He builds cathedrals.”

BFI Player logo

Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free

Other things to explore

From the Sight and Sound archive

Elaine May: laughing matters

By Carrie Rickey

Elaine May: laughing matters

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

By Henry K Miller

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema

By Tony Rayns

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema