Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Terrence Malick

More
What's Your Take?  Rate this Brave Thinker:
1 star = Not taking much risk | 5 stars = Risking it all

Film director
Austin, Texas

An enigmatic filmmaker manages to confound and thrill his fans in equal measure.

Terrence Malick’s fans suffer mightily. With each film since his 1973 directorial debut, Badlands, Malick has surprised, bewildered, and delighted those who think they know him best.

Badlands, whose sole characters were a pair of mass-murdering psychopaths, suggested that Malick might be a man without human feeling. But his next film, Days of Heaven (1978), so tenderly mapped its characters’ hearts that the director looked instead like a savant of the soul. Then, in The Thin Red Line (1998), his characters again ceased seeming human, instead walking around the fringes of the Battle of Guadalcanal half-hypnotized by the beauty of leaves, bugs, and sunbeams. Similarly, the encounter between Englishmen and Indians in The New World (2005) seems more extraterrestrial than human.

Brave Thinkers 2011So with the release of The Tree of Life this year, what expectations were left for Malick to dash? Plenty, it seems. The natural beauty of Melanesia is replaced by the suburbia of Malick’s hometowns of Austin and Waco, and the modernist downtowns of Dallas and Houston. Rather than exhibiting, say, gentle creepiness or tortured hearts, his characters remain enigmas, pursuing lives sparingly and elliptically described. Malick has gone from creating the most-vivid personalities in modern cinema to creating personalities so general and broad that they could be anyone’s, or no one’s, or yours.

The film, supposedly three decades in the making, won this year’s top prize from the Cannes jury. But rank-and-file moviegoers were less amused: at least one theater posted notices warning that Tree of Life was an art film, and therefore likely to confound (read: no refunds).

Still, Malick is doubling down on his directorial instinct, reportedly planning an even longer and more inscrutable release of the same film, this one six hours instead of the current two and a quarter. Meanwhile, he has several more films under contract, the next one featuring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams.

In Malick, we have a uniquely unsubmissive artist—remarkable for his willingness to flit from genre to genre and theme to theme, indifferent to the expectations of audiences, critics, and his own fans. Increasingly, studios green-light movies only if these expectations are pandered to. Against this assault on creativity, Malick is a bulwark, one of the last directors around to (in true Austin style) keep moviemaking.


Illustration: Anje Jager

Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In