It is wildly brash to think it might be possible to say anything helpful about any Terrence Malick film in just a few lines. No Malick movie can be reduced to a brief summary. His films are sprawling complex creative artistic endeavours in which their creator wrestles with a host of profound questions. All of Malick’s films offer a multitude of interesting insights and thoughts to ponder for the viewer willing to take the time to enter fully into their vision.
His movies push beyond the confines of language. Watching Malick’s films, I get the impression that, if he could he would prefer to make films with no words at all relying on scenery, facial expression, and glorious music to convey an experience to the viewer. Malick seems to be reluctantly driven to use language. Although when he does resort to words, they are deeply stirring and poetic. The words in his films are often hard to hear and difficult to comprehend, suggesting that Malick views human language as an inadequate tool for communicating the deepest truths of life.
What Malick really seems to want to do in his films is to evoke a mood, illict an experience, stimulate a response in the viewer, and encourage engagement with the material he presents. Terrence Malick never spoonfeeds his audience. He is not primarily interested in entertaining his viewers with a clear narrative plot or interesting psychological speculation about his characters. He respects his audience enough to believe that we want to struggle with his material as much as he has struggled to draw us into an encounter with deeper meaning.
With these disclaimers, I do think it might be possible to help a prospective Malick viewer open to the experience of a Malick film with a few suggestions about a possible theme that might be pursued in approaching each of his five movies. I do this here at this time because our local university movie theatre is about to begin a Malick feast showing each of Malick’s films in the order they were created starting with Badlands showing on Tuesday August 9. The series concludes on Saturday September 17 with the final of four screenings of The Tree of Life. For movie dates and times see: http://www.cinecenta.com/
So, bumbling in where angels fear to tread, here are my suggestions of a possible theme that might serve as an entry-point into each of Malick’s films.
Badlands(1973) is the story of two people who have become cut off from all the customary parameters we think of as giving a human life significance, meaning and value. Kit and Holly are the polar opposites of Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life. Mr. O’Brien always played by the rules, operating within the proscribed boundaries of social expectation. But, the question remains – has Mr. O’Brien’s conformity to social culture and ethical norms brought him any closer to true humanness than Kit and Holly’s complete rejection of all social structures? What is a person who has abandoned all morality and social conformity? As an unrepentant serial killer has Kit abandoned all right to being viewed as a human being? What is our reaction to a person like Kit who has traveled so far beyond the normal expectations of human conduct?
What are the necessary components that are essential to a truly human life?
Days of Heaven (1978) is a film about longing. The main characters look to some imagined ideal future, or to some magical relationship, they hope will finally satisfy their deep desires. But, all their attempts to manipulate circumstances to satisfy their longings lead only to chaos and pain. Both of the central male characters in the film desires what the other has. In seeking to seize what they feel they lack, they each lose all they had. Are we humans doomed to wander endlessly dissatisfied in a world of random events and arbitrary fate?
What is it for which we so deeply yearn? What is the most life-giving response to the inevitability that life frequently frustrates our strategies for finding contentment?
The Thin Red Line (1998) which appeared after Malick had vanished from sight for twenty years, confronts the viewer with endless questions. Why is there such violence in the world? Is hope or despair the final reality? Is there a spark at the heart of every human being that has the power to raise us above the endless dark pain of existence?
But one question lies at the foundation of all the others asked in The Thin Red Line. Is there something, or is there nothing, after physical death? In the words of the Job sermon in The Tree of Life “Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away?”
What intimations of eternity do I see in life? What makes it difficult for me to discern the faint outline of the reality that transcends physical death?
The New World (2005) poses the question of freedom. Who is free? Who is bound? How do we find our way to freedom? European settlers arrive in the “New World” seeking freedom. But they bring with them the slavery of their own inner violence. What is it that makes them unable to find the freedom they seek? Pocahontas/Rebecca is torn from the freedom she has known in her own country and among her own people and yet she is not bound. What makes it possible for her to experience freedom despite the oppression and injustice she experiences?
How do we become truly free? What do we need in order to experience the freedom for which we long?
The Tree of Life (2011) Motivated by the anniversary of his younger brother’s death, adult Jack O’Brien reflects upon his childhood. He remembers the pain of his conflicted relationship with his father set against the luminous presence he experienced in relationship to his mother. He relives the struggle of adolescence and the sadness and confusion of the loss and pain that haunted his youth. In his imagination Jack sees that the winding confused path of his life is connected to the force of being that created the cosmos and sustains all of life. He “sees” that ultimately all the apparently chaotic, disconnected, fragmented strands of existence are held in a greater unity of light and healing.
The Tree of Life is a movie about seeing. It wants to help us perceive the glory that permeates all of existence and to open our hearts to that reality that transcends pain and death.
What are the forces that make it difficult for us to perceive the deep beauty and grace that permeate the universe? What might we do to help ourselves become more sensitive to the grace at the centre of life?
These brief thoughts on each of Malick’s films barely scratches the surface. His movies need to be pondered, discussed and viewed many times. Like life, a Malick film cannot be contained by any of our clever ideas. They can only be entered and experienced. If we are willing to allow Malick’s movies to do their work on us, our hearts will open and we will discover a renewed awareness of the deeper reality of our lives.