The Magic of Malick

Four films.  Four films over a 37 year span.  That’s all it took for Terrence Malick to make his mark as a uniquely original filmmaking master.  I don’t know how many thousands of films have been made in the medium’s 100+ year history, but these four are unmistakably distinguishable as works of Terrence Malick.

It is hard to be an original in an industry with as much turnover as the movie business, but Malick is one of a kind.  His films (1973’s Badlands, 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and 2005’s The New World) feature a trademark style that is all his own.  A loosely spun narrative structure, stunning imagery and profound voiceovers are all common to his expertly crafted tales of morality.  His films double as masterpieces of entertainment and thought-provoking lessons in philosophy.

You don’t just watch a Malick movie, you experience it.  His masterful camerawork puts the viewer firmly in the center of his story.  We are working the wheat fields alongside Richard Gere in Days of Heaven, hiding in the tall grass with John Cusack in The Thin Red Line, and chasing Pocahontas through the woods in The New World.  Malick recognizes our connection to the surrounding environment, our dependency on nature.  We must work in unison with that environment to achieve our goals, to survive.

Malick’s camera is a subjective one.  Each shot comes from a particular perspective.  Each shot has a purpose.  This subjectivity is echoed in the voiceovers of his characters.  I’m usually not a fan of voice overs.  I often consider them a lazy cop-out for conveying messages and feelings that aren’t being enforced strongly enough through the film’s poor acting and visual representation.  Take this voiceover from Twilight for example:

“About three things I was absolutely positive: First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him-and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be-that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”

Have these issues not already been established?  We already know Edward is a vampire.  We’ve been watching the damn movie.  Isn’t she already conveying this attraction and confusion through her acting?  Apparently not.

In Malick’s films, the voiceover is much less a narrative tool than it is a component of the film’s score.  These words and voices are as beautiful as the accompanying imagery.  He tends to use the voiceover in one of two ways, both of which are unlike any other director’s use of the element.

First, as in The Thin Red Line and The New World, we get voiceovers from a number of different characters  These characters aren’t just explaining the events or their feelings towards them, they are painting a picture of their philosophical makeup.  What is love?  What is the point of this particular mission, of my existence, of life?  We get the perspectives of several central characters, witnesses from different angles.  Malick is challenging us to search for our deepest values and evaluate our own morals.  How would we react in this situation?

Second, as in Badlands and Days of Heaven, he uses a singular secondary character as the narrator of the story.    Days of Heaven is told through the eyes of an objective onlooker, the young sister of Richard Gere’s character.  She is innocent and not yet versed in all the evils of the world, without a clear understanding of the complexity of the love triangle that is central to the film’s plot.  Yet, the only deeper truths we hear through the audio track is what she can report.  Malick doesn’t want to force us to take sides in the push-pull of the film’s major conflict.

Our guide in Badlands is Sissy Spacek’s character, who suddenly finds herself in the center of a whirlwind when her boyfriend (Martin Sheen)  embarks on a killing spree.  She is naive, confused and is completely unaware of the inner workings of her serial killing husband.  She doesn’t understand his lack of value for human life, which is perfect because no one really does.

Malick doesn’t drive the narrative like most directors do, hitting plotlines like checkmarks along the way.  He lets the viewers be their own drivers, with the characters on-screen serving as the passengers in each viewer’s interpretation of the story.  There are moments in The New World where several years are lost in a single cut without any mention of a time lapse.  Where did those years go, and what happened to the characters during that time frame?  That is for us to decide.

Malick’s films aren’t overly long (Badlands and Days of Heaven are each just around 90 minutes) but they all feel like epics, largely because he is so meticulous with his editing.  It is the weight and density of the film that is important, not the length of the reel.  He packs more meaning into each frame, creating the sensation you would get from a lengthy epic without exhausting the endurance of his audience.  Some of his shots look like he waited weeks, even months, for his ideal combination of cloud cover and solar angle.  Every frame is the portrait of perfection.

I love to be challenged by a movie, to be fully immersed in the viewing experience.  Some movies are over, and they just end.  Other movies force me to sit and ponder, to attempt to gather my thoughts as the credits roll, to re-evaluate my entire outlook on life.  These are the films of Terrence Malick.

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