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Terrence Malick

By Graeme Wood

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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.
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