On DVD: latter-day Terrence Malick
The word ‘genius’ is thrown around too liberally with regard to art. I myself am certainly guilty of hyperbolic use of the term. But there are some people for whom such a description is never unwarranted. The brilliance of their work is undeniable, indelible, even if it doesn’t fit everyone’s taste. Terrence Malick is such an artist. He burst onto the scene in the 1970s with the greatest one-two-punch debut of all time,with Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978. Both are masterpieces, poetic theses on matters as diverse as sociopathic murder and the eternal corruption of natural Edens. They announced the arrival of a fascinating new voice in cinema, a contemplative and wide-eyed visionary a level above the hip preening of the Film School Generation that was overtaking Hollywood at the time.
And then he disappeared.
After Days of Heaven‘s release, it would be 20 years before Terrence Malick would deliver another film. A Harvard philosophy student and Rhodes Scholar who never completed his studies, he was considered a brilliant mind who had trouble finishing things, and when he started work on The Thin Red Line, nobody assumed he’d finish that either. He was simply too aloof to work in the film industry, too exacting and too incomprehensible in both his method and his personality. The Thin Red Line‘s release in 1998 was met with much skepticism. Had the runaway genius disappeared completely into his own mind, or was he still capable of crafting art the way he’d done back in the 1970s? The question met him again when he released The New World seven years later.
Both times he delivered, though many are still coming to grips with what, exactly, he accomplished with these two films. They are still being considered and dissected. Their genius is obvious, but the overall achievement is still not agreed on. I felt this way myself, and that’s why I revisited the two films on glorious BluRay high definition this past week.
The Thin Red Line
If people cannot agree on the dramatic merits of Malick’s return to cinema, they can usually agree on this: The Thin Red Line is one of the most gorgeously shot films of all time. The imagery is often overpowering, with Malick’s camera sweeping over the lush South Pacific locales and regarding battlefield carnage and nature’s eternal turmoil in the same meditative fashion. And therein lies Malick’s central thesis in the film. He observes war and human conflict as another constant layer of existence in a universe defined by struggle, no more unnatural and no less unavoidable than vines strangling trees or crocodiles hunting in the rivers. He retains the themes of a lost Eden that he presented in Days of Heaven, but bravely asserts that Edens have their underlying conflicts too. He is not endorsing war, just attempting to place it into some kind of cosmic context that’s often lost amid abstracts like’ patriotism’ and ‘righteousness.’
His characters feel complex fear as they serve as Malick’s philosophical voice boxes. They do not simply take what they are told about the war as righteous gospel, as is often depicted in World War II films. They consider the constant air of death that surrounds them, and each reacts to it differently. Critics often take issue with Malick’s transient use of characters to present his free-floating ideas, but these men never feel less than real. The actors are universally excellent, especially a stunningly expressive Jim Caviezel in a early-career role he has yet to surpass. Unlike as in Badlands, Malick makes full use of musical score, using Hans Zimmer’s wonderful compositions to propel his distanced, thoughtful examination on the nature of conflict and the evils that rise from existence like weeds in the grass. The film’s narrative is actually fairly straightforward, but Malick’s typically elliptical storytelling will turn off some viewers, as it did upon the film’s release when many were expecting another Saving Private Ryan. As great as Spielberg’s film is, Malick is trying something different. He’s not making a ‘war film,’ but rather trying to find out where war fits within a violent universal puzzle. This film is not for everyone, but it is a rush of brilliance from cinema’s greatest visual poet.
The New World
Malick was struck by the story of John Smith and Pocahantas back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he finally delivered his beautiful portrait of that story to the screen. The genius of the film is that it retains a resolute ignorance of its own historical context. Almost any other film about the founding of Jamestown would be buried under political allegory and pious finger-waving at how the Indians would come to be treated. Malick isn’t interested in that. He’s concerned with telling a broader story of worlds coming together, about the beauty of discovery between peoples and the tragedy of how fear and misunderstanding can undermine the early potential of such meetings. The term ‘new world’ here applies almost equally to two different discovered countries. The English, specifically Colin Farrell’s John Smith, are awed by and struggle to exist within the lush untouched land of Virginia, and Pocahantas is similarly charmed and challenged by the crowded monajerie of England when she is taken there by her husband John Rolfe. Her early love with John Smith is stripped of the usual love story trappings, instead embued with a mutual wonder about that which neither of them yet understand. They are both wide-eyed individuals with a greater appreciation for the potential of their moment, and their love is presented as a beautifully clumsy, poignant, and uncertain exploration of two different universes.
These are not experiences soured by a knowledge of the crimes that would later come. The encounters throughout the film are of course wary and occasionally violent, but they retain a wonder that is often lost when we retell these stories. They speak more to the potential of two worlds colliding than to the tragedy of how we always seem to mess it up. Malick lets himself be a dreamer, even among events that happened 400 years ago, and the result is spellbinding, a lovely and somber poem of a lost America that we will never get back.
Malick’s visual sense of nature is, yet again, without peer. He somehow manages to make long takes of grass and water absolutely enchanting, and his characters’ poetic voice-overs enhance his observations and never intrude. The film is reliant upon the portrayal of Pocahantas (though that name is never used), and a then 14-year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher delivers what I consider to be one of the greatest performances of the past decade. How it did not receive even a nomination from the Academy is completely beyond me. Even to those put off by Malick’s meandering narrative, she is a complex and overwhelmingly affecting personification of all the goodness and potential this moment in history possessed, and then lost. The ending of this film will quietly floor you, and for a while you won’t be sure why, but the majestic work of Kilcher in the last scenes is a key reason. For as taciturn and slow-talking as Malick is said to be, he knows just the right buttons to push with actors. While The New World is yet another visual masterpiece in his canon, this time it is the work of his thespians that makes the film unforgettable.