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In defence of… Terrence Malick

This is a guest post from Steve Neville. Steve is a part photographer, part broadcast television whore. 

A biiiig bang (The Tree of Life, 2011)

In a recent chat with a learned friend, the subject of Terrence Malick came up. We were both on different sides of the fence regarding our appetites for Malick movies, but we did agree on his directorial style being one that demanded attention, effort and perseverance to enjoy. Too much effort for most it has to be said.

So in order to defend him, I guess we need to identify exactly what it is that puts him in most people’s bad books. His mantelpiece is graced with Oscars, a Golden Bear, and a Palme d’Or. Surely he is doing something right… right?

Having studied, and later going on to teach philosophy, we can straight away identify the roots of the meandering, existential thought that seems to punctuate his movies. His first foray into the cinematic world was in drafting screenplays, including funnily enough the first draft of Dirty Harry no less. But from a directorial perspective, let’s take a look at the common denominators.

Way up here (Days of Heaven, 1978)

Having a tendency to leave on The Thin Red Line any time I stumble across it on TV, and having recently watched Tree of Life and The New World, a few things about Terrence Malick movies have become apparent to me. It would be very easy to say his movies are slow, overly long and too cerebral… but many would say that is a fair statement. You could even suggest that when Colin Farrell is squeezing out raw emotion for all he’s worth without saying or doing much for two and a half hours, it can border on painful.

What you can also say though is that Terrence Malick movies look and feel unlike any other movies. He fills the frame with rich visuals, accurate and detailed set design and costumes. He shoots in exotic locations that present us with sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a National Geographic documentary complete with indigenous people as extras. The latter is probably a big factor in him losing half of his audience; we want movies when we watch movies, not nature documentaries. At this stage we should know what we are in for when a Terrence Malick movie comes out, so we should be prepared, and waiting for the long tracking shots across a forest floor or dried out river bed, shots like these are his tools, the backbone of his movies.

Like this... for 15 minutes (Badlands, 1973)

Something else that has the potential both to suck you in and to take you out of his movies is the dialogue. It is often less like scripted lines and more like a series of monologues, whispered voice-overs and sometimes whole passages with not a single word spoken.

Again, some of us have an appetite for such things, and allow them to just be what they are – standard cinema fare though, they are not. Notoriously Malick edits with a heavy stroke, often cutting whole scenes and characters at the last minute. This results in a sometimes disjointed and non-linear feel that often works well and defines his overall style.

It would be off the mark to suggest that Terrence Malick is avant-garde, but he certainly doesn’t play by the rules. Perhaps the slew of awards and the end credit reels that read like a “who’s who” in Hollywood are a testament to how many of us do have an appetite for Mr. Malick. I must admit though, if you aren’t in the right place and frame of mind, it’s hard work.

Perhaps a shorter way to come to this conclusion would be to say his movies are like a long train journey through the countryside… you are often bored and don’t have a clue where you are, but you see some beautiful landscape and views along the way that makes the journey worthwhile.

You can also get off a train before it reaches it destination. Many do when it comes to Terrence Malick… their loss I say!

(The New World, 2005)