To summarize and dissect the entire career of a filmmaker who has been around for over four decades would seem like a monumental task. With Terrence Malick’s filmography, however, the task is made simpler. The infamously reclusive filmmaker has to this day only released four films, with a fifth less then a month away. This fifth film, The Tree of Life, is one which Malick fans and film fans in general, have been patiently waiting to see for several years. For those devoted and obsessed with his films, the wait has been much longer as we first heard rumours of this film in 2005. And while this may seem like a long time, this film has been spiritually in the making since Malick’s first film in 1973. The Tree of Life is, in many ways, the logical conclusion of Malick’s career, and while he is not retiring, this marks the end of this cycle of films for the less than prolific filmmaker.
Beginning his filmmaking career in 1973 with the bleak, violent Badlands, Malick showed hints of the beauty he would later bring to the screen. The film has all of the characteristics of the angry, harsh films of 1970s American cinema. It follows two sociopathic characters as they go on a killing spree while seemingly falling in and out of love. The film is not personal, nor is it on the epic scale that would later define Malick’s films. One aspect of the film that would make it stand out was the beautiful cinematography, something all of his films have in common. Even more striking was the voice-over from Sissy Spacek’s Holly, who narrated the film with a sort-of disinterest for what she was going through and what her boyfriend was doing to others. The voice-over would become a trademark of all Malick’s films as he proved that narration is not the lazy filmmaker’s tool for storytelling.
Five years later, he would release what many consider a true masterpiece, Days of Heaven. The film told the story of a violent love triangle between a poor couple and the farm owner they worked for. Told in the tradition of an epic Hollywood romance, the film separated itself from the rest with its perspective. The film is told through the eyes of a young, uneducated girl, played by Linda Manz. The emotions are purposely at arms-length as the girl watches her brother and his girlfriend con the farm owner. The love, hate and disdain they feel for each other is not told in long scenes of dialogue, instead it is shown as if Manz’ character is watching in the distance from the fields she plays in.
Disappearing for almost twenty years, the legends of Malick’s whereabouts are some of film fans’ most discussed topics. Returning to the big screen in 1999, Terrence Malick produced what I feel is one of the greatest accomplishments in cinematic history, The Thin Red Line. The film is an epic, philosophical look at man’s struggle with himself and his place on earth. Set during WWII, the film’s focus is not on war or violence, but rather with life and death and the in-between we call life. It was Malick’s most personal film, with narration coming from virtually every character. Heartbreaking and stunningly beautiful, this marked Malick’s first foray into delivering emotions directly.
Upping the ante once more, his next film The New World would deliver a romance on a scale rarely shown on screen. Telling the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, Malick’s increasingly epic scale and personal approach were in stark contrast to the lack of emotion in both Badlands and Days of Heaven. Released in 2004, fans were wise to expect a long wait for his next film, which would be announced in 2005. But it is only on May 27th 2011 that the film is being released.
In typical Malick fashion, details about the film have been kept in the shadows, with miniscule details and rumours trickling out over the last couple years. From the trailer, official synopsis and dozens of stills now released, fans are expecting something cinema-changing. Malick’s career has led to this film, both stylistically and thematically. Over the years, his films have become more personal in their emotional approach and increasingly epic scale. This had led directly to The Tree of Life, a film which tells the story of a family in 1950s America. It is both autobiographical and our first real glimpse into Malick and his life. And while the film tells an extremely emotional and personal story, its scale is one larger than we have ever seen from this auteur. From what we have heard and seen, the film shows the beginning of life in the universe, and possibly even showing glimpses of what will become of our vast universe. These two aspects of the film would seem to be of polar opposite pictures, yet Malick’s style makes this film the logical conclusion for this portion of his long career.
Malick is not retiring after this film, yet a new approach is needed as this film marks the end the decade long journey he started with his first film. Strangely enough, a yet untitled new film from Malick is completed shooting and from the rumours, a new approach is exactly what he took as the film is a small scale romance set in the present day. This filmmaker means different things to many people, and personally is the reason why I want to become a filmmaker. His importance as an artist means that with his possible magnum opus only a month away, we may see a film unlike any yet produced.