Terrence Malick is a filmmaker and artist of the highest class, whose distinct style and sublime sense of storytelling has carved out a permanent place in the history of cinema. In the last 38 years, he has created five films, each of which explore the struggle of the human soul through visual poetry. After a significant hiatus, Malick returned to filmmaking in 1998, and has delivered three remarkable films: The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and his most recent film, The Tree of Life, which has already received high praise from film critics including Roger Ebert. It also won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes International Film Festival, the most notable award given to the director of the best film that year.
Malick’s films are true masterpieces, and given the immense themes they explore, questions they ask, and answers they attempt to provide, it is no small wonder that each requires several years to gestate and evolve. Visually and cinematographically, his films appear like paintings brought to life. Though they are beautiful and dream-like, they are experienced by the viewer like the recollection of a memory. While the story or event at the heart of each of his films is often simple, through his interpretation and expression, Malick evokes the splendor and mystery of the human experience and existence, dwelling on images and moments so the audience may internalize them, and turning the actors’ performances into reflections of our own sensations, yearnings, fear, and hope. The complexity in his work lay in the intricacy of his screenplays and hundreds of hours of film, shot to capture every perspective and angle of the experience. He does not rely on common dialogue, narration, or scenery. Instead, the words in his films take on a poetic tone, chosen carefully to create a profound meaning and woven into the film along with his scenes and music in a magnificent harmony.
The most defining characteristic of Terrence Malick may be his cinematography, and in each of his films, it becomes another perspective whereby each image and moment captured feels as though it is being seen for the first time. Like a painter, Malick captures an event with such wonder and totality that each image carries a sensation that comes to life for the viewer: the natural beauty of the Pacific is juxtaposed with horrors of battle in The Thin Red Line; the culture and customs of the Native Americans stands in stark contrast with that of the English settlers in The New World; the incredible visuals of nature and the universe are set against the backdrop of small-town life in 1950’s America in The Tree of Life. Malick’s powerful use of cinematography not only brings us into the emotion of each scene, but it awakens a voice that whispers to us throughout his films: “What is this life?”
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, which was released the same year, The Thin Red Line does not merely document the events of World War II; rather, it uses the U.S. invasion of the Pacific to explore the psychological effects of war, the meaning of life, and the significance of our existence. Malick examines the mystery and struggle of the human experience through the harshness of war, as the world fights itself and the loss of life becomes commonplace. Similarly, The New World looks at the settlement of Jamestown by the English; however, it is the relationship between Captain John Smith and Pocahontas that comes to the forefront, their love perhaps symbolizing a greater meaning to life than the destruction of an indigenous people by foreign explorers. The Tree of Life represents a confluence of these themes, and it is a masterpiece that touches on numerous aspects of life through the events of a family, following their growth as part of a seed in a vast and unknown universe.
Indeed, Malick’s most recent work epitomizes his distinct style and seems to merge all his thoughts and questions in one 138-minute film. Through the story of a 1950’s family and his powerful images of nature and the universe, he touches on several themes that are central to human existence, as he simultaneously views life from the perspective of the family and from the beginning of existence. He investigates the dynamic of this family and the weight of a father’s past failures on the eldest of three sons, who struggles to understand life and his place in the world. Through his beautiful images of the universe and the character development of the mother and middle son, who seem to be in harmony with nature, Malick raises questions about humanity, the meaning of our existence, and the significance of life in such a vast universe. It is a brilliant film told in a non-linear form, jumping from surreal images of nature to the modern life of the eldest son while revolving around the story of the family in the 1950’s. He has created a film on the same level as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film experience that boldly asks the big questions about our existence, and we will undoubtedly continue to unravel its mysteries for years to come.
There are distinct similarities and common themes that run through Malick’s three latest feature films, and they share an additional characteristic in regard to character development. In each of these films, there is a character that can see beyond the current situation and, with this knowledge, lives as if there is a greater meaning to life; something far beyond the confusion and struggle of life; something that recalls the soul. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) is almost disconnected with the evil around him in war, maintaining a spark of life and hope at a time when so many have been disillusioned. Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) finds the good in Captain John Smith, and through their love, she overcomes the barrier between the different ways of her people and those who are invading their way of life. The wife in The Tree of Life (Jessica Chastain) also exhibits a love for life and a connection with nature (which is also shared by the middle son) that allows her to grasp something about life amidst so much else.
In each film, Malick also features a foil to each of these seemingly innocent and hopeful characters, figures who are disillusioned by what they see and experience, and struggle with life as they know it. In The Thin Red Line, this character is First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), who is cold and disgruntled by the war, the destruction of life, and the lies, often finding himself in disagreement with Witt and his belief in something better. Similarly, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) struggles to lead his men in settling the New World and following through with England’s mission while his heart is led astray by his love for Pocahontas. The eldest son (also played by Sean Penn as an adult) in The Tree of Life experiences the same inner conflict as he bears the burden of his father’s demands for success and obedience, losing hope in God and life as he sees the bad that exists in the world and ventures off the path of good in his youth. Through these two types of characters, Malick is able to create stories that develop important themes related to life and humanity.
It is easy to view Malick’s career and his works with a skeptical, and perhaps, even critical eye. His unique, patented style may often seem elusive. His typically long films that venture into deep themes through complex stories, imagery, and a lack of conventional dialogue, can appear disconnected. However, it is exactly this style that makes his work so great and has forever carved his name in film history. His style is unparalleled and few dare to explore such thought-provoking themes in the film and entertainment industry today. Not only does he direct these complicated films, but he also writes them, tying together numerous subplots and piecing together different images to create his final product and story. With the release of The Tree of Life, perhaps a capstone to a brilliant career, Malick’s imagination, creativity, and genius will forever resonate in cinematic history, as he will be remembered as one of the best directors, writers, and perhaps philosophers of the modern era.