Hitch the titles of Terrence Malick’s first and most recent movies together and you get a pretty concise account of an extraordinary career: From Badlands to the Wonder.
With the opening of Malick’s sixth feature this week, an arc can be traced from the Nebraska flatlands of his 1973 debut feature to the celestial preoccupations of his 2013 release, but the path also leads from narrative to abstraction, from prose to poetry, from the physical to the metaphysical, from contemplation to meditation, and – to borrow a phrase from James Jones, whose Second World War novel The Thin Red Line Malick adapted to such mystical effect in 1998 – from here to eternity.
There is no other American movie career like it. Not only is the 69-year-old Texan conspicuous for his academic training in philosophy(he has translated Martin Heidegger from German), but also for his abrupt departures from promising careers in academia and journalism. However, although nearly 30 when he entered the American Film Institute Conservatory in the early seventies, he seemed to have found his true calling. At the time, it probably appeared to be making movies. Subsequently, it looks more like making movies into something else. Most people turn to the cinema to create windows through which we watch their vision. Malick has created visions through which we glimpse something beyond. He is Hollywood’s maverick transcendentalist.
In his first movie, which was inspired by the heartland killing rampage perpetrated by Charles Starkweather and his 15-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, in 1958, Malick injected his earthly tale of remorseless violence and New Frontier alienation with regular intimations of larger forces at work: It was there in the haunting cutaways to the landscape, moon and creatures of the desert, and in the curious musical juxtaposition that incorporated both Erik Satie and Nat King Cole. Seemingly jarring elements kept pulling at each other – but none so hauntingly as teen fugitive Sissy Spacek’s pink bedroom diary voice-over – yet the overall impression left was one of a weirdly coherent harmony, of a serenity attained even in the midst of all this killing.
From the beginning, a signature style emerged. Elements of sound, image, music and dramatic linearity – elements normally used in harmony – were pulled apart and set in opposition to each other. But the result in Malick’s hands was not cacophony. It was a new kind of harmony, a way of reordering the ordinary so it took on a new form.
When Days of Heaven arrived in 1978, the canvas was larger – the Midwestern wheat fields of the early 20th century – the images even more awe-inspiringly ravishing, and the tensions that much more starkly opposed. A triangulated story of love and betrayal between another fugitive couple (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) and a dying landowner,(Sam Shepard), the movie indulged classical melodramatic tropes and Old Testament biblical allegory to summon a sense of a world perilously at odds with its natural gifts and begging for retributive wrath, which eventually comes in the form of a locust plague and uncontrollable prairie fire, smoke rising darkly to the sky that had hitherto provided such heavenly golden light.
What was going on here? Certainly American folklore was no stranger to fundamentalist apocalypticism, but this was something different. Unlike Badlands, Days of Heaven was working on a new mode of expression: You could see it in the way Malick and his camera drifted in and out of conversations and swept away toward the land; the way everything in the movie – from insect to movie star – seemed to exist on a plane of equal significance; and, even more starkly than before, in young Linda Manz’s preternaturally omniscient voice-over.
There was something like God in those teenage-girl words, but in everything else too. Or call it what you will, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that this overwhelmingly beautiful and thoroughly cinematic experience was inducing in its viewer a state of suggestible rapture. The movie was merely the means to another end, in which the end was really the beginning. And so the criticisms of the film’s threadbare plot seemed to miss the point that Days of Heaven was not about its characters anyway. It was about the experience induced by the watching. The movie as meditation.
Then the great silence, a 20-year period of wandering between the winds in which Malick, not to mention the exceptionally tolerant era in which he emerged, seemed to disappear. His legend merely grew with his absence and notorious disinclination for public exposure, and his first two movies took on the status of almost sacred pop cultural texts. Who was this guy? Where was this guy? Would he ever make another movie? Questions piled up and then, aptly enough, Malick ended the silence and began, literally, his first film in two decades with another question, the very first words of The Thin Red Line: “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”
A war movie about the futility of war, The Thin Red Line is nevertheless unlike any other American anti-war movie ever made. As much a rumination on the presence of a universal spirit and transcendent human soul as it is a horrific account of the cost of the victory at Guadalcanal, the movie suggested that Malick had not so much walked away from filmmaking as he had been consolidating his vision, so that those elements that were largely suggested and implied in the first two movies were marched straight to the front lines here: The voice-over that functions as a running philosophical conscience to the action; the camera that glides in and out of the action like a swooping hawk, the reduction of all characters – whether played by unfamiliar newcomers or barely glimpsed major stars (like the flyover appearances of John Travolta or George Clooney) – to a plane of equal value and worth.
As radical a big-budget, star-studded work as Hollywood has ever produced, The Thin Red Line also marked another major departure from form: Malick turned right around after it and made another, equally unconventional and mystically prone epic (The New World), and followed that with possibly the most surprising development of his career: The Tree of Life, not only his boldest and demanding statement of transcendental intent yet, but actually something of a modest international hit. The film might have been fiercely allusive, elliptical, non-linear and abstract, but people went to see it and, even more significantly, talked about what they saw.
To the Wonder is no less challenging. Indeed, it may be the director’s most frankly metaphysical movie yet. But that’s no real surprise. What is striking is the fact it’s also only the latest: There are no less than three Malick movies currently in various states of post-production and due for release in the next year, suggesting a filmmaker who is not only experiencing a kind of late-period inspirational surge but one who is determined to ride the wave as long as it lasts. And it may well crash, especially if the movies prove – as they well might – commercially underwhelming. but by that time, Malick will have already built up one of the most striking bodies of work in popular American arts. He would have gotten away with making poetry in the pulp factory.