October 23, 2003

Viewer Discretion Advised

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Who in the hell is Terrence Malick? That is the average response I get when I mention his name. Who is he? Consider him the anti-Spielberg, a reclusive philosophy professor turned filmmaker who made two of the most critically-acclaimed films ever, then disappeared for twenty years only to reappear again in 1998. Although he has only made three films, his influence has been profound. Malick has always struck a difficult balance, making commercial films while still retaining cinematic principles like imagery and sound. There is no telling when or if he will ever make another film, but his return is certainly anticipated. These are the three films he has produced over his thirty-year career.


Before Natural Born Killers was even a thought, there was Badlands, one of the most influential films of the ’70s. Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen star as Holly and Kit, two lovers so alienated and disparate that the killing spree they go on seems to them a romantic run into the sunset rather than a reality. Based on an actual series of mass murders in the 1950s, Badlands roams through the vast and empty plains of Montana and South Dakota, following its two lost characters as they drive into their fantasy. The narration, done by Spacek, is so flat and unaffected by the killing her character witnesses that it is haunting. This is a sparse and poetic vision, an American nightmare, with two individuals stuck in a dream world, unwilling and unable to awake. Made when Malick was only twenty-nine, Badlands has been hailed as one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, being placed on the same pedestal as Orson Welles’s debut of Citizen Kane, and is Malick’s finest film.

Days of Heaven

Arguably the most popular of Malick’s films, Days of Heaven boasts a visual richness that can be rivaled by few films. Set during the years prior to World War I, it examines a violent love triangle between a wealthy Texas farmer and two field workers fleeing from the factories of Chicago. The film is shot almost entirely outdoors, capturing an otherworldly sense of beauty and loneliness in the rolling wheat fields of Texas. The use of light, whether it is dusk brimming red through the hills of wheat, or the lambent glow of fire cast against the face of a girl, is remarkable and breathtaking. Starring Richard Gere (before he sold out) and Sam Shepard, the film successfully catapulted both actors into the national eye.

The Thin Red Line

I know that I am risking whatever credibility I have by writing this, but this is a much better film than Saving Private Ryan. In fact, it is the absolute antithesis to the maudlin, flag-waving patriotism of Spielberg’s film. World War II is merely the setting, as the movie roams through the collective consciousness of its characters, exploring their profoundest fears and fantasies as the ominous reality of death lurks below the tall grasses of Guadalcanal. Intensely visual, the film juxtaposes images of blinding natural beauty with scenes of intense violence, including one of the most startling battle sequences ever filmed. What Malick creates is a meditation on man’s impulse to destroy, and it constantly asks the question mused upon by Blake: were good and evil born by the same hand? Nick Nolte delivers an incendiary performance as a power driven Major, as does Sean Penn as a coldly existential Sergeant.

Archived article by Zach Jones