A Beginners Guide To: Terrence Malick - The Man, The Myth & His Movies

With his latest and most talked about release of all time, The Tree of Life, now in UK cinemas, WhatCulture! brings you the beginners guide to why Terrence Malick fascinates us so much.

Terrence Malick is somewhat of an oddity in the world of movie-makers. He has been in the business for 38 years and has only released 5 films to date. Very little is known of his personal life and he never gives interviews. This past weekend saw the U.K. release of his fifth movie The Tree of Lifestaring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. As with many of his movies, it has drawn a mixed reaction from the critics and the public. You just need to look at the reactions to Matt Holmes' review to see how he splits audiences. Some people say his work is pretentious, others say he€™s an artist- I think the truth lies somewhere in between. From what is known about his life, Malick began his career as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Dissatisfied with the results of the finished films in the hands of other directors, Malick decided that for his next screenplay he should try his hand at directing it himself. Badlands€™was to be his directorial debut, from a screenplay he had written which was loosely based on the real life Starkweather murder spree in the late 1950€˜s.Badlands starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as two young lovers on a cross county murder spree in middle America.
Released in 1973, the film was met with universal acclaim. Visually stunning, it captures a picturesque vision of America and makes it€˜s vast landscapes incredibly cinematic. Sheen plays Kit, a rebel in his mid-teens and Spacek plays the 15 year old Holly. They fall in love, and feeling rejected by the world they go on the run and are determined to let nothing or no-one get in the way of thier love for one another. Although the characters murder people on their journey, the actors really make you feel for them and Malick stages everything in such a wonderful way that when the film ends you€™d almost forget that the main characters were murders, instead remembering them as young lovers trying to find their place in the world.
In 1978 Malick released his follow up movieDays of Heaven with Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams. Set in 1916, the movie tells the tale of Bill and Abby, two poor lovers who flee with Linda (Abby€™s sister) to Texas to work for a shy and wealthy farmer. The movie had a long and troubled production. Shot in €˜76, the film was Malick€™s first time working with a union crew, and he is said to have been unfamiliar with union rules and as a result many crew members reportedly quit during the filming. The editing process took a full two years to complete. Malick kept on experimenting with voiceovers and even reshot a couple of scenes. In the end it all paid off. The film was released in €˜78 to great praise, with many critics calling the film a masterpiece. Proving once again that he could aptly juggle visuals with narrative, the movie won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in €˜79. The length of time it took to make Days of Heaven wore Malick out. Paramount were so impressed with the finished film that they offered him carte blanche on whatever project he wanted to work on next. This was not enough to spur him into making another film. Tired and exhausted Malick took off to Paris with his girlfriend where he lived outside of the spotlight and away from movie studios. Twenty years had passed since Days of Heaven and nobody had heard sight nor sound of Malick apart from his friends and family who all respected his privacy too much to talk about him to the press.
In 1998 he returned to cinema with a sweeping World War II epicThe Thin Red Line, a movie he had been developing since 1989. It featured an all star cast including John Cusack, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Woody Harelson, Adrien Brody and Nick Nolte. The film had also cast big name actors like Martin Sheen, Mickey Rourke and Gary Oldman, but all their scenes were removed when the movie was editied down to a 3 hour cut from the original 5 hour cut. Expectations were riding high on this movie. Malick had an impressive track record- fans were waiting 20 years for this film and everyone else was waiting for him to fail. The movie was highly rated among critics but divided audiences. This movie cemented Malick as an art house auteur. His previous two movies, as artistic as they are, were also pretty accessible to your average movie goer. The Thin Red Line is far more cerebral in that it€™s narrative is linear in structure, but not in essence. It has a beginning, middle and end but no central focus or conflict, instead it has a free flowing voiceover between various characters dealing with the thoughts inside their heads. This film split audiences. Compared to his other works which were lean, moderately paced and focused, Thin Red Line was to some, a world away from anything he had made before. Some understood that Malick had evolved as a film maker and was keen to explore new themes, ideas and story structures with audiences, while others saw him a has-been director who was trying too hard to live up to past glories. It€™s a divide which still remains today.
Following on from The Thin Red Line, Malick did not wait too long before his next release. He was back in the public eye and was reinvigorated to keep making movies. In 2006 he released his fourth film The New World, a re-imagining of the Pocahontas tale (although the character is never referred to by name). It stars Colin Farrell as explorer John Smith, who arrives in Native America and clashes with the natives and English settlers. Christian Bale and Christopher Plummber also star. The New World The film has more in common with The Thin Red Line than it does with Badlands and Days of Heaven. With stunning landscape photography it really reiterates the fact that, love him or hate him. Malick is first and foremost a visual director with a cinematic eye. Whilst the critics were positive with their reviews but it didn€™t receive the high praise of his other works. The film is the least well known and recieved film of Malicks works among the general public, but fans hold it in very high regard. It was nominated for best Cinematography at the 2007 Academy Awards but did not win.
As you read this, his fifth and latest movieThe Tree of Life will have hit our shores. The film follows Jack, played by Sean Penn, a man who is disillusioned with his life and questions his existence while remembering his youth and in particular his father, played by Brad Pitt. Like all of Malick€™s work, it€™s an ambitious character study which is set to challenge audiences. It€™s disjointed narrative structure is complimented by it€™s unique visual style. If your not familiar with Malick hopefully this article will ignite your curiosity and steer you towards watching one of his movies to see what all the fuss is about.Badlands is the best movie to start with. It€™s simple, has a strong script, fantastic score, beautiful cinematography and brilliant performances. It€™s not only, in my opinion the best Malick film, but also one of €˜the€™ great movies in cinema. If you like it, or if you feel brave enough, go see Tree of Life in the cinema while you can. All of his movies deserve to be seen, and are intended to be seen on the big screen. Malick is a director who can only be understood by watching his work. If you do go to see Tree of Life keep in mind, it€™s not just entertainment- it€™s art. Check out the trailers for 'Badlands' and 'Tree of Life' below and see what you think. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcFx06cBmbk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXRYA1dxP_0
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