Perfect Movies: Terrence Malick’s First 5 Films

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Terrence Malick is one of the most interesting directors of both the 20th and 21st century. For decades known as a reclusive auteur who rarely made a film–and when he did they were universally hailed for their meditative tone and brilliant cinematography–Malick abruptly broke away from the rarity of his releases and within the past 6 years has released as many films as he had in the previous 40.

Whether or not this is a good thing is difficult to ascertain. While it’s wonderful that one of the most visionary directors of his generation has experienced a late-life career renaissance, it’s arguable that his most recent films (including two films being released in 2017 alone) aren’t of the same caliber of the handful of films he delicately and patiently crafted for years before their release.

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Maybe this once-reclusive, methodical director is feeling his mortality–at 73, this is understandable–and is completing as much work as possible before the inevitable occurs. But this is also (somewhat) ruining his reputation as a genius. 2011’s The Tree of Life was hailed as one of the best films of the year, if not the 21st century so far, and features an astonishing sequence that depicts the birth of the universe and spans across cosmological time until the extinction of the dinosaurs, a sequence Malick had been working on for 30 years.

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Then the next year, Malick surprised audiences with another film, To The Wonder. Featuring Malick’s typically stunning cinematography, its story was unsatisfying and the film received mixed reviews–a first for Malick. Undaunted, Malick returned in 2015 with Knight of Cups, an experimental romantic drama that received even worse reviews.

In 2016, Malick expanded the cosmological segment from The Tree of Life and turned it into an IMAX film, which was widely hailed but played to limited audiences. Now, with Song to Song receiving perhaps the worst reviews of Malick’s career and with Radegund set to be released this year, it seems Malick’s ending his career with a flurry of activity that’s quickly becoming a process of diminishing returns.

And this is unfortunate, considering that until 2012, Malick was considered one of the greatest living directors–if not one of the greatest directors–of all time. From his feature debut Badlands in 1973, Malick has been a unique visionary in American cinema known for his poetic, meditative, and beautiful films. Following up with Days of Heaven in 1978–a film that Roger Ebert rightly called “one of the most beautiful films ever made”–Malick suddenly disappeared. Never the most open or forward filmmaker to either the press or his audience, Malick made two incredible films in the 1970’s and then produced nothing. For 20 years.

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Although, that’s not true: Malick disappeared from public view but worked as a screenwriter for other directors in that time period, experimenting with theater, and working on his long-term project Q, which would eventually formulate the lengthy “birth of the universe” sequence in The Tree of Life. But his main gift–as a director–went silent for two decades.

The next film Malick released was 1998’s The Thin Red Line, one of the greatest war films ever made. Another beautiful meditation on the nature of man and war, Malick was rightly hailed again as a genius. Another seven years passed before his next film, 2004’s The New World, was released, again to critical acclaim. This naturalistic film depicts the meeting between John Smith and Pocahontas and is stunning in its historical accuracy and visual treatment and perspective of Native Americans encountering Europeans for the first time. Another seven years passed before his next masterpiece, The Tree of Life, which was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography at that year’s Academy Awards.

Over the span of those 38 years, from 1973 to 2011, Malick carefully, slowly, and methodically crafted five outright masterpieces–and 20 of those years were with no significant creative output whatsoever. So perhaps what Malick is really doing at this point is making up for lost time. But in speeding up his production process, releasing five mediocre films within five years (and this sounds terrible) is kind of ruining his once-spotless filmography.

It seems that if Malick was worried about his historical reputation, he would be more careful about the films he’s currently making. But I’m not Terrence Malick, and God knows what’s going on in his head at any given moment. Maybe he’s shoring up money. Maybe he’s panicking in old age. Maybe he realizes he wasted 20 years and has tried to make up for it in these past five.

But let’s not speak ill of his potential present-day missteps and instead praise those first five films, each one unique works of art and spectacular feats of cinema. All five of them are perfect for their own reasons, so instead of focusing on just one, let’s take a look at each of them and what make them perfect movies.

Badlands (1973)

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Malick’s first feature film is a lyrical study of everyday psychopathy set in the beautiful and banal background of the American Midwest loosely based on the real-life spree killing of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Rich in texture and every frame infused with symbolic meaning as to the nature of love, death, man’s nature, and the American landscape as a whole, Badlands is a stunning debut and a rare film where every frame means both everything and nothing.

Malick was just 30 when he shot the film, having scraped the financing together from various investors, producer Edward Pressman, and $25,000 of his own money. With Martin Sheen as the James Dean-worshipping, murderous Kit Carruthers and Sissy Spacek as his naive and highly impressionable 15-year-old girlfriend Holly Sargis, Badlands features remarkable performances from both actors, who seem to innately capture the oversized bravado and sheltered self-centeredness, respectively, of both their characters.

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With a disconnected narration by Spacek’s character at some unknown place and time, the film takes on a dream-like tone that shields the viewer from the more brutal violence on display, while Malick’s direction seems to regard his characters as part of the landscape they inhabit. It’s a tour-de-force and a masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking.

Days of Heaven (1978)

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If Terrence Malick only made one film, and that film was Days of Heaven, he would be regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers ever. Citizen Kane-like in its stature in film history, Days of Heaven is commonly referred to as one of the most beautiful films ever made. And it’s true: in it, there are scenes Malick creates where his characters intersect with transcendent fleeting moments of nature, where the heat of the summer, buzz of insects, and swaying fields of grain frame two figures as they lazily walk together in harmony with that moment in time.

And there’s good reason for the film’s great beauty: Malick insisted on not only improvising the shooting of the film based on the weather that day but often demanded that they shoot scenes during the “magic hour,” a fleeting moment of the day just before sunrise or sunset where the light on the horizon gives off a warm, bathing glow. This drove his crew understandably nuts and shooting went both over-budget and over-schedule as a result.

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Then he spent three years editing the film, seemingly unable to figure out the narrative structure before striking upon the brilliant idea of stripping the film of much of its dialogue and instead adding a voiceover narration by Linda Manz, whose adolescent, Midwestern accent makes the film seem more like a memory than a present story.

The film’s story is simple enough: In 1916, Bill (Richard Gere), a manual laborer in Chicago, kills his boss and flees to the Texas Panhandle with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and her younger sister Linda (Linda Manz), and become migrant workers. Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister to prevent gossip and end up working the farm of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) who suffers from a debilitating illness. The farmer falls in love with Abby and Bill encourages her to marry him so they may inherit his land after he dies. She does so, but then the farmer unexpectedly continues living. This leads to tragedy for all three, with Linda as witness to it all.

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It’s a gorgeous, poetic film the likes of which are rarely seen. And audiences would find out just how rare for the next 20 years, since after this film Malick practically disappeared. During that time, his legend and stature as a director grew considerably, so much that by the 1990’s he was regarded as one of the finest directors of all time–and one that had only made two films.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

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After a 20-year absence and without much explanation, Malick returned with his third feature film, The Thin Red Line. An epic war film taking place at the Battle of Mount Austen, part of the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theater of World War II, The Thin Red Line shows Malick again treating war with his poetic visual gifts, often portraying soldiers navigating lush island landscapes while the audience is privy to their inner thoughts, all while these moments of peace are often shattered by abrupt outbreaks of battle.

It’s not only the most unique war film ever made but one of the best, elucidating the human face and psychology of man when faced with the confusing, seemingly unending tragedy of war. Balancing the tension and violence with meditative, transcending shots of the gorgeous nature these soldiers find themselves doomed in, Malick creates an indelible, moving depiction of men seeking meaning in the face of absurdity and almost certain death.

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Hailed by critics and nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score but lost to that other great war movie Saving Private Ryan. Tellingly, it was also Malick’s first big hit at the box office, suggesting that mainstream audiences were finally ready for some art in their films.

The New World (2005)

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Malick’s next film, following a (for him) brief period of just 7 years since his last, depicts the historic period of early 17th-century America before it was inhabited by Europeans. Focusing on Pocahontas as she meets Captain John Smith, The New World features Malick’s trademark meditative pacing and approach to narrative, preferring to let images of the pristine land of the New World and its native inhabitants shape the story. As poetic, complex, and visually stunning as any of Malick’s films, The New World is a film that defies easy understanding as to how Malick conceived of it, or how he made it work.

This film, which depicts a long-gone world with accuracy and lyricism, received mixed reviews upon release but in the past decade has risen sharply in regard, with many critics citing it as one of the best films of its decade. It’s a historical film that approaches history on the terms of Terrence Malick, and with an attention to tone and detail that most period pieces miss.

The Tree of Life (2011)

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If there is one movie that shows what Malick was doing during that 20-year hiatus, it’s The Tree of Life. And if there’s one sequence that displays the grand ambitions Malick seems to have been grasping for his entire career, it’s the grand birth of the universe to the end of the dinosaurs. It’s a spectacular sequence that leaves any viewer moved at its spectacle and scope.

The rest of the film seemingly hinges on this sequence, as it relates the life of a man (Sean Penn) who is having a sort of existential crisis in the modern world. Haunted by memories of his tragic past and difficult present, the film lurches into this centerpiece to suggest that the context of our daily lives are both incredibly small and yet connected to the vast, unknowable universe we live in.

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It’s something special, this film. It’s the culmination of Malick’s life’s work and the themes he’d been working into his films. Taken as part of his previous four films, it’s perhaps the key to all of it. Some clever editor could assemble an 11-hour movie out of his first five films and make a spectacular piece of art that encompasses a philosophical outlook of the secular and divine, the human and naturalistic, and a transcendental view of reality that’s rare to see, much less experience, in life.

Terrence Malick Today

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As harsh and uncharitable as it sounds, it’s difficult to think that Malick will ever make a film again the way he made his first five films. Time has to do with it: Malick had never rushed his projects before, instead writing and shooting and editing his films on incredibly long schedules, ranging from five to thirty years, and producing masterpieces as a result.

But now, nearing the end of his life and seemingly wanting to produce as much as he can before his time runs out (a time, it seems from his work, he’s well aware of), Malick seems to want to produce as much as possible. Which is great for him but disappointing for his overall filmography. Speaking as a disconnected film fan who has no personal relationship to a director he enjoys, this is the only perspective I can speak from: it’s unfortunate that he’s spending his last years speeding through productions and making sub-standard work as a result.

But history–and film fans–will always have those first five films to reflect upon, be inspired by, and enjoy. Everyone one of his first five films are masterpieces and perfect films. History, time, and even Malick himself can never diminish these accomplishments.

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