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Terrence Malick and the Edge of the Possible

'The images and acting are beguiling, but the absence of narrative drive means that if the spell falters, Malick loses his hold on us. As with Andrei Tarkovsky, I watch his films in a heightened state of excitement and drowsiness. A great revelation is about to manifest itself, yet I fear I will fall asleep and miss it. Malick and Tarkovsky dare to engage with the metaphysical. They have taken film to the very edge of what is possible.’  

John Boorman, Conclusions

When I was a teenager, just getting interested in cinema, there were two Terrence Malick films. They were Badlands and Days of Heaven, and they were both superb. If you don’t know Malick’s work and this post inspires you to give it a try they are still probably the best place to start - they’re among the best American films of the 1970s, and the ‘70s was a very good decade for American films. But that was it: after Days of Heaven, Malick vanished. It seemed as if, having made his two masterpieces, he had wearied of cinema. Nothing much was heard of him for another fifteen years.

Then he suddenly returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a World War 2 movie about US troops in the Pacific. I found it baffling and rather dull when I saw it at the cinema but, as with all Malick’s works, there are individual shots which have stayed vividly in my memory - I need to give it another go. Since then, Malick movies have been coming out faster than I keep track of them - when I started to get interested in him again recently I found that there were at least two that I’d never even heard of.

There have been seven Malick movies this century. One, Voyage of Time, is a sort of abstract nature documentary, but the other six divide neatly into two groups. In one group are three stories set in the present day - Song to Song, Knight of Cups, and To the Wonder. Actually ‘stories’ is pushing it a bit: all three basically set up a situation and sort of circle it for a couple of hours. There is beautiful photography and editing, strong acting, a great sense of place and physicality, but I find them hard to love. (As with The Thin Red Line, I need to give them another go.)

I find the other three, The New World, The Tree of Life and A Hidden Life much more rewarding, and I’m going to post a synopsis of each and some of the notes I made after watching them. None of them relies on story in the conventional sense - they flow past you like music, you’re not often perched on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens next - but I will be mentioning the endings, so if you want to experience them fresh for yourself, just skip this and watch them: they’re extraordinary works of art.

The New World

Apparently an idea Malick had been developing since the Vietnam era, this epic historical drama begins with the Powhatan locals watching three English ships arrive in their Edenic stretch of North America to establish a colony. In the hold of one of the ships grumpy ne-er-do-well John Smith (Colin Farrell) is chained up, having disgraced himself somehow on the voyage, but since he’s one of the few trained soldiers the colonists have, he is freed and put in command of an expedition to the interior. There, after a dreamlike journey up the virgin river, he finds himself captured by the Powhatans, and saved by the intervention of the chief’s daughter (Q’orianka Kilcher - I don’t think her character is actually named as Pocahontas in the film, but that’s who she is, and that’s how I’ll be referring to her, for the sake of convenience). So begins a fragile love affair, which is set against the equally fragile first few years of the colony. Its a tremendously long movie - pushing three hours - but, when you make it to the end, you really feel you’ve been living in another time. In the later scenes when, after a rocky start, the colony at Jamestown starts to thrive, we see people dressed in fashionable Stuart clothes wandering around, and after our long immersion in the world of the Powhatans and their ragged English invaders they look as alien to us as they must have done to Pocahontas. 

At the end, abandoned by Smith and married to another Englishman (Christian Bale), she travels to England as a guest of King James 1. In the gardens of his palace her Powhatan companion (Wes Studi) studies trees clipped into perfect cubes with the same look of wonder as the colonists regarding the American forests at the beginning.

The Tree of Life

I steered clear of this one when it was released at the cinema because I thought it sounded a bit weird and abstract, but I am an idiot: it’s one of the most astonishing works of art I’ve ever seen. It’s extremely personal, and at the same time perhaps the most insanely ambitious film ever made, attempting to set an ordinary suburban life in the context of the entirety of Creation.

In the 1960s, a Texas couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) get the news that their 19 year old son R.L. has died. Then we flash forward to the present day, where their other son, Jack, now in his fifties and played by Sean Penn, is working as an architect in a city of glass skyscrapers. He thinks of his brother’s death, wonders how his parents coped with it, and the film suddenly unleashes what must be the most ambitious flash-back in cinema history, jumping all the way back to the moment of the Big Bang. We watch the galaxy form, the stars take shape, the young Earth wracked by volcanic eruptions. Life begins in the seas, and creeps onto the land. Dinosaurs emerge, and the ones we see are all having a rough time, like the people in this film - life was hard, even in the Jurassic. An asteroid arrives and puts an end to them, and suddenly we’re back in Texas in the 1950s, watching Jack's infancy, and the birth of his younger brother.

The film settles into a long and extremely beautiful central section about Jack (Sean McCracken) growing up. He adores his mother and clashes with his stern, moody father.
R.L. (Laramie Epler) is more fragile, musically talented. It’s barely a story at all; we just witness the small incidents of a small town childhood drifting by, and it’s so vivid and immersive that it comes as a shock when they end and we find ourselves back with Sean Penn in his city of glass, as if we have woken from a dream.

And then, in perhaps the most ambitious flash-forward in cinema history, his thoughts turn to the future; we see the aged sun expanding to swallow up the Earth, the end of the world. And afterwards, Sean Penn’s character crosses a desert and reaches a bleak, beautiful beach, where his own younger self and the friends and neighbours of his childhood wander like sleepwalkers. He finds his father in the crowd - they are the same age now - and seems to make peace with him. He finds his mother, and her younger selves, and finally, in this afterlife beyond time, they are able to come to terms with his brother’s death.

To quote John Boorman again, ‘If God made a home movie, it would look something like this.’

A Hidden Life

“That was a bit drawn out,” said one of the four or five other people in the cinema when I saw this one. And he was right, in a way - the film tells the true story of Franz Jaegerstatter, an Austrian farmer who, when conscripted into the Wehrmacht in World War 2, refused to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and kept on refusing until the Nazis executed him. It could probably be told in ninety minutes, but Malick takes three hours.

I think the point, though, is that by the time Franz (August Diehl) is finally taken to the guillotine, we’ve lived with him, we know the sounds and textures of the alpine valley where he farms, the faces of his neighbours, the rough grain of the wood on the fence rails, the various bleak prisons he passes through on the way to his (off-screen) martyrdom, and his relationship with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner - it’s really as much her story as his). What we never really get to know is why he takes the stand he does. He’s not an especially devout Christian or a political activist, and, after all, he’s only being asked to swear an oath - his village priest tells him it’s fine to go ahead and save himself, God will know what’s in his heart. The army officers and lawyers he deals with are baffled by his stubbornness. They don’t want to execute him - why doesn’t he become a medical orderly if he objects to fighting? But what Franz objects to is swearing loyalty to Hitler, and medical orderlies still have to do that. 

The half-empty screening I attended in a tiny arts centre cinema was one of only five in my area: Taika Waititi’s irreverent comedy about anti-Nazi resistance, Jojo Rabbit, came out around the same time and had a much wider release. But Jojo Rabbit pushes the reassuring idea that you could resist Nazism by shouting ‘F*ck off, Hitler’ and booting an imaginary Führer out of the window, whereas A Hidden Life suggests that it might actually take an act of almost incomprehensible moral courage to which very few of us could rise.


In A Hidden Life Franz talks to a painter who is touching up the murals in the village church. People look at paintings of the crucifixion, says the artist, and like to imagine that if they’d lived in those days they would not have been among the crowds who persecuted Christ. Its hard not to see him as a stand-in for Malick himself, especially since he delivers some of his lines while standing beside a stained glass window through which the sunlight pours down on us. The light in Malick films sometimes seems to be the main character, and he has collaborated with photographers of genius (Emmanuel Lubezki on The New World and The Tree of Life, Jörg Widmer on A Hidden Life) . Many scenes are shot at ‘magic hour’, the hours either side of sunrise and sunset. Light reflects from the surface of rivers, spills dustily into quiet interiors, glows in the seed-heads of the fields of swaying grasses through which Malick loves to set his characters wandering while a hand-held camera follows them from behind. In The Tree of Life, light seems to take on explicitly mystical meaning: God is light, or maybe light is God. Which sounds very much like the sort of thing one of Malick’s somnabulant narrators would murmur. (All three films have multiple voice-overs, with different characters sharing their disjointed, wondering thoughts with us, building up a sense of overlapping lives.)
Malick’s actors seldom stand still; they are constantly pacing and turning. His camera is just as restless. During one of the conversations in A Hidden Life the camera just focuses on Franz’s ear, his shoulder and the weave of his waistcoat. When he discusses his fateful decision with Fani we see only her side of the debate, which she delivers straight to camera, standing in shadow against a sunlit landscape. The New World may be as long and ambitious as Barry Lyndon, but there’s none of that Kubrickian sense of every shot being planned and rehearsed down to the last detail. It feels more as if Malick has just built his impressive recreation of Jamestown, filled it with actors and extras, and shot whatever happened, making the film in the editing suite afterwards. There is a strong sense that both actors and director are improvising. In The Tree of Life there is a scene where the children of the town are hanging around in a park or open space in the lovely light of a summer’s evening and the camera wanders among them; its not scripted, it’s feels as if it’s just the film’s young cast and extras hanging out at the end of a day’s shooting, and it captures children being children perfectly.

A scene in The New World where Colin Farrell's character, left in charge of the colony over a hard winter, angrily confronts the mutinous colonists, is cut together from two very different takes - in one it’s raining and Farrell is angry, shouting, in the other it isn’t and he’s slightly quieter, and the editing jumps between the two almost randomly, as if we’re seeing two different accounts of the same conversation. (A similar thing happens in A Hidden Life, where a conversation between Fani and her mother-in-law happens both outdoors and indoors simultaneously, questions asked in one version of the scene being answered in an entirely different one.)

Few shots connect with the one before them or the one that comes after in the way that we are used to: it is all montage and jump-cuts. You know those bits you sometimes get in fantasy and science fiction dramas where people are shown recordings of their own or other’s memories? And they never look like real memories, they’re just movie shots? Well, Malick makes whole movies which look like memories. That central section of The Tree of Life (which feels deeply autobiographical) is exactly like watching someone’s memories - fragmentary images from early infancy, gradually expanding into more complete incidents as the hero grows older. Some seem to have a supernatural element - a chair moves by itself, the boy’s mother seems to levitate, and in one strange shot a child rides a tricycle round and round a cramped loft-space, watched by a tall man who has to bow his head to stand upright under the sloping roof. I take these to be the memories of dreams, or day-dreams (I have a few very vivid childhood memories of things that can never actually have happened). In A Hidden Life there is a moment during Franz’s imprisonment when Malick suddenly cuts to a shot of his home in the mountains. It’s not some beautifully framed landscape - it’s a wobbly, handheld take, in which the camera edges along the outside wall of a house or barn to reveal a view of the steep fields beyond. It lasts maybe two or three seconds, and captures as well as anything I’ve ever seen or read that habit apparently inconsequential memories have of popping up unprompted years later and in quite different circumstances.


These are long films, and they demand your complete concentration for two or three hours. Perhaps as a result of that investment, they all rise at the end to moments of glorious emotional release. “I will wait for you in the mountains,” Fani tells her dead husband on the soundtrack of A Hidden Life, as the camera lifts up its eyes to the hills. In The New World Pocahontas’s death, which we knew was coming and have dreaded, is never shown directly: instead, we see her playing hide and seek with her son in a formal garden of clipped, geometric yew hedges: one minute she is there, laughing, alive, and then she is not, and he keeps looking for in confusion as the slow realisation dawns on him and us that she is gone. After that the film, which has always had a fairly tenuous relationship with linear narrative, seems freed from it entirely. In a final cascade of images we see Pocahontas’s grave, we watch her turning cartwheels in another English garden, we see the ship carrying her husband and son back to Virginia sailing out of harbour, and then the same shot of the harbour mouth with the sea bare, the ship gone. In the forests of America clear water pours over a stone in midstream; we look up at a stand of dark pine trees against the sky, the insistent notes of James Horner’s theme rise, rise, and suddenly fall silent. The trees creak in the wind, and the screen fades to black.

And The Tree of Life ends on the same image with which it opened; a strange light-form, like a glowing leaf or a pale flame, hovering in a black screen. When it first appeared I had no idea what it was meant to be, but when it returned at the end it seemed very clearly to represent God, standing outside of time and observing everything from the birth of stars to the childhoods of ordinary human beings.

I do not believe in God, but there are certain artists, like J.S. Bach, or the builders of the great cathedrals, who give me a tantalising glimpse of what belief might be like. Terrence Malick is one of them.


  1. The Tree Of Life is the only one of these I have seen and was incredible and such an unusual mixture of images. I had to buy the Blu-ray disc. I am now really intrigued to see The New World.

    1. Hi Bonny! I had the same reaction to The Tree of Life - I went straight out and bought the Blu-ray. In some ways, despite having less story than the other two I've mentioned, it's the most accessible. But they're all great. I hope you enjoy The New World.


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