Many have remarked upon the strangely inverted career trajectory of noted auteur Terrence Malick. Instead of making a flurry of inspired works at the beginning of his career before tailing off into infrequency as he aged, Malick has moved in the opposite direction. He began with a pair of 90-minute cinematic short stories, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), heavy on voice over and poetic imagery. Then came the 20-year hiatus before a return to filmmaking with 1998’s World War II drama The Thin Red Line, a film overshadowed mightily by Steven Spielberg’s much more accessible Saving Private Ryan, also released in 1998. His next film came fast and furious by comparison: 2005’s The New World, Malick’s personal take on the John Smith-Pocahontas story, deepened a kaleidoscopic style that had been in evidence, to one degree or another, for 30 years, even if he only had four films to show for it. Beyond Malick’s visual consistency, however, each of his four films is unified by their firm placement in the past. Thirty-plus years into his filmmaking career, Malick had yet to turn his camera on the modern world.
When he finally did settle in the present, he did so in 2011’s The Tree of Life, which has a bifurcated narrative that features both its central character’s childhood (in the past) and his modern life (in the present). Since then, he has stayed in the now, with subsequent features To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017). In addition to their rapidly successive releases, each of these films is deeply preoccupied with life in the 21st century, which runs counter to a number of Malick’s visual and thematic obsessions. Each of his first four films is preoccupied with the beauty and sanctity of the natural world, expressed through his wandering cinematic eye, which lingers on fluttering birds and swaying fields of wheat at least as often as he shows important characters. Likewise, each of Malick’s first four films makes extensive use of voice-over that captures the quiet privacy of a reflective moment as his characters ruminate on their place in a complex world.
As much as the modern sequences of The Tree of Life, and the entirety of the fully contemporary To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song rely upon these same stylistic and thematic preoccupations that unquestionably anoint Malick an auteur, there is something incongruous about these films’ relationship to the modernity they capture. If they are about anything (and their elliptical, refracted style calls that into question for some viewers, for sure), these modern Malick films attempt to reconcile the difficulty of living a quiet, reflective life in nature when the intrusive, technology-driven demands of modernity are always getting in the way.
There is precedent for this tension in Malick’s period films. Each of the first four in some way depict a clash between the modern world, represented by man and the undisturbed, Edenic paradise of the natural world. In Badlands, the treehouse hideaway where runaway fugitives Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) live off the land is eventually disturbed by an invasion of bounty hunters and police officers, from whom Kit violently defends the land before they make their escape. During a visually dynamic sequence late in Days of Heaven, a group of ranchers, led by Sam Shepard’s unnamed farmer, make a desperate play to fight off a plague of descending locusts by burning the fields. The violent battles on Guadalcanal of The Thin Red Line intrude on the peace of nature, which Malick captures through a pair of simple images; one lingers on a field of tall grass before the shooting breaks out, his camera watching as the overcast sky becomes streaked with sun, bathing the grass in warm light. Another, during the firefight, shows a small bird with a broken wing fighting for its life in the mud while rattling machine gun fire and the thunk of grenades dominates the soundtrack. The very presence of John Smith (Colin Farrell) in The New World is a disturbance to Pocahontas and the members of her tribe. In each film, Malick chronicles the ways human beings disrupt the placidity of the natural world through their unavoidable predilection for violence and destruction.
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The Tree of Life is situated firmly in both the past and the present, which marks it as a transitional work between the films of Malick’s view of the world before his production dates and his view of the modern world. (Note: throughout, all discussions of The Tree of Life refer to the extended cut that runs 189 minutes.) In its modern sequences, Jack (Sean Penn) wanders through the modern world in spaces that seem increasingly alien to him. Though the majority of the film takes place during Jack’s childhood (when he is played by child actor Hunter McCracken), Penn’s older Jack carries the melancholy of Malick’s depiction of the volcanic marriage between his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) into the modern world. Malick’s expressive camera, frequently looking up in wonderment through chaotically framed shots, invites comparison between the childhood world of Young Jack, when everything seemed larger than life, and Old Jack’s place in the modern world, which reinforces his smallness. In the childhood sequences, Young Jack feels small in comparison to the vastness and possibility of the world ahead of him. In the Old Jack scenes, the same perspective conveys the world’s indifference to him.
Young Jack’s childhood is hardly rural, but the world around his Texas home is marked by its pastoral character. By contrast, the Old Jack scenes take a cue from Michelangelo Antonioni, who spent much of the early 1960s shooting modern spaces through a profoundly alienated lens as he sought to chronicle the soullessness of the world we have built, and its deleterious impact on our ability to experience real human emotion. Old Jack ascends an escalator, dragged upward by the mechanical force of modern engineering in a cruel parody of spiritual transcendence. He goes up, but really goes nowhere at all. He is trapped, like the enormous tree in the lobby of his building, which Malick’s camera catches briefly, looking up in wonderment. To gain relief, Old Jack must flee to the rocky desert, where Malick shoots Penn wandering in his suit in fleeting moments of escape.
While the first four Malick films are set almost entirely outside, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song straddle the line between interior and exterior. When Malick went inside in his earlier films, the interiors were harsh and forbidding — the quiet home in Badlands that is the site of a murder before Kit burns it to the ground, or the cavernous belly of the naval ship that carries the servicemen to battle on Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line. In the modern Malicks, he finds a kind of middle ground between the natural world that his characters long to join and the alienating indoor spaces his characters occupy. When inside their homes or offices, his camera shoots them against enormous floor to ceiling windows that let light in, but act as a psychological barrier. Especially in Knight of Cups and Song to Song, his wealthy but hollow characters move through their lives negotiating the artificial spaces they inhabit while wishing for something more. The natural world through the windows, with its bright sunlight and overwhelming beauty, is visible but not attainable. The modernist architecture of these spaces, with relentlessly straight lines and exposed ductwork, contrast mightily with the unruly deserts they occasionally are seen wandering, with their scattered stones forming a thousand possible paths up the side of a mountain. In Malick’s vision of the modern world, the angles are all straight and right, pointing in an assured direction that offers certainty but forecloses opportunity.
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Malick dramatizes this journey through intimate relationships between central characters in To the Wonder, which truly and properly begins his modern vision after the flirtatious glimpses of it that occasionally marked The Tree of Life. As in a number of Malick films, the subject is the difficulty of achieving transcendence, but the filtration of that idea through modernity makes To the Wonder a work of incongruous scenes and images that clash with his earlier, reflective vision of the past. An early scene between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), set at a remote castle in France, finds the couple wandering through an ancient space in the kind of aimless, emotionally ambiguous play that will find repetition in Knight of Cups and Song to Song. The castle has a winding set of stone paths and a relentless staircase which leads to an enclosed garden of verdant calm, which Neil and Marina, new lovers, soak in. They find more joy at the castle’s base, following uncertain footing through a muddy bank at low tide, which sags like a trampoline when they step. The water rolls in and out, continuing a cinematic obsession of Malick’s that has characterized a number of his films. Later, in the United States, Marina will muse in voice over about the meaning of love against images of flowing water, as Malick aligns the undefinable, rushing surges of water that take up space, but can’t truly be grasped, with the transience of deep human feeling. A moment before, in a disconnected scene, Neil walks through a creek that runs behind a series of suburban homes, testing it for lead. Modernity has poisoned the well.
To the Wonder is built on a number of images that clash against each other and within themselves, their juxtaposition always encouraging awareness of fracture and disruption. Like the majestic trees of his earlier productions, the first shot of the United States in the film, which largely takes place in Oklahoma, is of an open field with tall grass blowing in the wind, so much a quintessential Malickian image as to be clichéd. As Marina runs into the frame through the field, she is dwarfed by a massive steel tower rising out of the ground, which carries power lines into the distance for as far as the eye can see. No longer is nature a space of refuge — now, it has been spoiled by the intrusion of man. Later, Neil and an old acquaintance, Jane (Rachel McAdams), with whom he has a brief affair, pull Neil’s truck into a field, and are surrounded by bison. They climb atop the car, looking around at the creatures paying them no heed. Malick’s first extended look at modernity produces a number of such strange images, perhaps none more alienating than a rushing dolly shot, scored with Hanan Townsend’s classically inspired music, through the parking lot of a Sonic Drive-In. A shot that seems near parodic in its melodramatic sweep, it seems a virtual guarantee that never before has a greasy burger joint been photographed so seriously. These modern locations — a fast food joint, a brilliantly lit supermarket fully stocked with groceries, cookie cutter suburban homes — entrap his characters. Each of them seems simultaneously uncertain how to live in the modern world and able to use these spaces to hide from emotional vulnerability. As the distance between Neil and Marina grows, Malick captures them in a poetic visual passage, separated by the staircase that keeps them apart. In a single shot, Marina stands at the top of the stairs on the upper right side of the frame, just having come out of a bedroom. On the lower left side of the frame, Neil passes by the foot of the steps and stops at the same moment Marina does. They cannot see each other, but each knows the other is there, at the other end of the stairs. After a moment, Neil leaves the frame, the moment of possible emotional connection now over. Neither knows how to connect; the artifice of their home helps them avoid the risk.
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When Malick’s characters do find an echo of nature in these modern spaces, it is through the intrusion of the natural world that simultaneously calls them back outdoors but also reinforces artifice. In Knight of Cups, an opaque business meeting between Rick (Christian Bale), a disaffected screenwriter, and an agent or producer (unclear which) played by Michael Wincott, takes place in the lobby of an enormous, sun-bathed office building. A wide shot captures a pair of brilliantly green trees planted in an indoor, constructed bed, marking the path up a set of stone steps. The clash of nature, harnessed and brought inside a space of commerce, marked by modernity in its design, suggests that humans have attempted to fill a deep longing left by their departure from the natural world, but have only mustered a soulless copy. Numerous other residences and businesses, fleetingly glimpsed throughout Knight of Cups, offer similar fusions of nature and man’s modern world. Malick’s camera continually lingers over and under the waterline of a number of swimming pools, their chlorinated placidity visually contrasted repeatedly with the awesome majesty of the Pacific Ocean, crashing against the shore in deafening roars. In the brief scenes near the sea, the water threatens to swallow up Rick or Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), with whom he has a brief affair; in the suburban swimming pools overlooking the city of Los Angeles, humans have mastered water. They are in no physical danger; their wounds are spiritual. A telling couplet of images appears early on in the film as Rick, shot from behind, stares at a snowy television set in a darkened room and says in voice over: “Where did I go wrong?” Malick suddenly cuts to a helicopter shot of a desert, rushing headlong through the wild, open space.
The notoriously improvisatory approach that Malick takes, in which he shoots an enormous amount of footage and finds the film in the editing, often has the byproduct of setting his actors adrift. They are denied traditional narrative arcs and bereft of clear signposts of characterization. As a result, they often lapse into mannered, overly demonstrative behavior in lieu of delivering scripted lines or carefully blocked movements meant to communicate recognizable human traits to an audience. In one moment in Knight of Cups, Rick is on a rooftop overlooking Los Angeles. Bale cautiously, and ponderously, moves towards the roof’s edge, his fingers running along the stone rail and trickling up a fire escape ladder. It is unclear what this tactile response to these modern, man-made surfaces is supposed to communicate about Rick, but it says an awful lot about Malick. Of all the moments he captured during production, he selected Bale’s performative, “the-camera-is-on-me-so-I’d-better-do-something” interaction with the smallest, most insignificant architectural design of the chosen location. Bale’s improvised behavioral tic, of a piece with Marlon Brando’s artful play with Eva Marie Saint’s dropped glove in On the Waterfront (1954, Dir. Elia Kazan), is elevated to capture Malick’s anxiety about the creeping intrusion of modernity.
In both Knight of Cups and Song to Song, Malick’s characters seek refuge in their alienation from the modern world through hedonism. In the latter film, a party at the modernist home of Cook (Michael Fassbender), a record producer, features a nude woman laid out on a table, covered artfully with hors d’oeuvres. She blinks as musician BV (Ryan Gosling) wanders past the table, ponderous about which piece of fruit to choose from her body. In both films, nude women wander aimlessly through wild, untamed parties, jumping into swimming pools with abandon. Guests at these bacchanalia dance often with hastily chosen partners, but more tellingly, a number of them dance alone, seemingly trapped inside an alienated bubble of their own making. They have isolated, singular experiences in an artificially constructed simulation of community bound together mostly by boredom. Song to Song gets its title from a piece of distracted narration by Faye (Rooney Mara) that speaks to the emptiness of her life. She says, “I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song.” Implied, but unspoken, is her growing inability to keep the shallowness of that existence at bay. The parties, the changes in hairstyle, the glasses of champagne, the concerts she attends at the Austin music scene where the film is set, the sudden sexual encounters with both Cook and BV — all of these have increasingly diminishing returns. In each, Mara’s empty expression communicates Faye’s distance — Cook notices, saying, “I wonder where you are.”
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They too, wonder, and in their wondering, give way mostly to wandering. A number of sequences in modern Malick follow his characters through aimless trips to small corners of the world. In Song to Song, BV and Faye suddenly emerge from beneath a highway overpass, looking to cross the busy road through the onrush of endless, roaring traffic. It is unclear where they have been, unclear where they are going. In To the Wonder, Neil and Marina end up finding a quiet moment of intimacy on a golf course completely empty of players. In Knight of Cups, Rick and his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) share oblique, expository family history in parking garages and empty office buildings. Where are they going, where have they been? The narratives’ refusal to provide that information renders its absence essential to the characters’ emotional emptiness; they are just as directionless as the story, constructed to emphasize dislocation and disorientation, both temporal and spiritual.
In Malick’s effort to capture the alienation that accompanies modernity, in his contemporary-set films, he ultimately achieves a similar alienation cinematically. Malick’s modern films frequently feel like they are chasing emotional and spiritual transcendence, but often fall to distraction. Their cinematic style, meant to achieve a kind of organic, improvisational feel that reflects everyday existence in all of its frustration and splendor, nonetheless shows the artifice of design. Actors set loose to behave naturally end up performing “behavior” for the watchful eye of the camera. At their best, these films are capable of crafting intensely moving visual rhymes through juxtaposition of images. At their worst, they are mannered, ostentatiously stylized works that feel more like exercises in collage than cohesive films. As is true of a number of filmmakers with highly specific narrational and formal styles, Malick runs the risk of becoming a prisoner of the expectations he has created for himself, especially with his accelerated production over the past decade. In the end, he may be just as trapped as his characters are, caught between the necessity of modernity’s advances and an ideal world, by now so distant in the past that it is no longer reachable.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.