Even in blasé, been-there-seen-that Hollywood, a new film by Terrence Malick is an event. The man is one of the genuine auteurs of American cinema, a director whose reputation in cult circles is arguably greater than that of the other, more prolific, more widely known directors who emerged around the same time, in the early 1970s: Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and so on.
Much of this has to do with Malick’s Salinger-like reclusiveness and limited output: between 1973 and now, he has directed just four feature-length movies, and there was a gap of nearly 20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Being reclusive and making films sporadically (rather than having a regular output) doesn’t automatically make you a great artist, but it does suggest that there is a strong purity of purpose in your work; that it flows more from internal compulsions than from, say, the constraints imposed by the studio system, or financial dictates. This is borne out by Malick’s oeuvre. Even a casual viewing of his films (though they aren’t quite conducive to casual viewing!) reveals a very individual style and a powerful, distinct vision of the relationship between human beings and their environment.
The most striking quality about his work is his interest in nature as a whole – as a single entity, with man just one very small cog in the giant machinery. This doesn’t mean that Malick’s films are like National Geographic documentaries – they are feature films, with narrative structures, and built around human stories – but no other director I know is as skilled at creating visual poetry out of the various elements of the natural world: plants, animals, insects, fire, water. Watching most films made by other directors, you feel that they are concerned principally with the human drama (as we, the audience, quite naturally are) – that they don’t much care what’s going on in the background. Even when there’s a lingering shot of a landscape, it usually performs the function of visual relief, or punctuation between scenes, before we return to the main narrative. But watching Malick’s films, you get the (sometimes eerie) sense that he has a special prism of his own: that he’s detached enough to look at members of his own species no differently from the way he looks at the individual trees in a forest, or the individual leaves on a tree, or the blades of grass in a meadow.
And yet, this apparent undermining of the human element doesn’t mean that his movies are clinical or emotionless. Quite the contrary, they have a very particular, heightened emotional quotient – in his best scenes, it’s possible for a viewer to appreciate drama on many different levels, not just the human one. A good example of this was The Thin Red Line, one of the most widely discussed (also among the most widely appreciated, and most widely criticised) films of recent years – ostensibly a war movie, but one that was far less concerned with military strategising and the minutiae of battles than with the interior feelings of the protagonists and their relationship with the terrain they struggled through. It was classified as an “anti-heroic” war film (by critics who made a point of contrasting it with Spielberg’s more conventional war movie Saving Private Ryan, released the same year) – but it was really a film that stood back and coolly showed us how insignificant our conflicts are when set against the larger picture. And it did so without trying to make an obvious moral point.
Malick’s particular brand of filmmaking – his use of interior monologues, for instance, and the long, languid scenes full of nature shots – is fraught with danger: it can easily tip over into self-indulgence, and my admiration for him notwithstanding I was disappointed by his latest film The New World, which I saw yesterday. This is, very briefly, the story of the first English settlers arriving at Jamestown in 1607 and their encounters with the native tribes who have been living in this “new world” for centuries; of the love and empathy that grows between the mutineer John Smith and a young native princess; of the complications that arise from conflicts, both between the settlers and the natives and among the settlers themselves; of Smith’s eventual decision to return to England and the development of a new, more mature relationship between the native girl and another settler, John Rolfe.
Many of the early scenes in this film are very beautiful in the classic Malick style: the initial tentativeness of both the English settlers and the natives, distrust tempered by the desire to trust; a tribal warrior tapping curiously at the armour worn by a settler, almost as if he is trying to work out if this strange creature is really made of flesh and blood underneath, just like himself. And the familiar depiction of nature as sentient and knowing: when two characters wade about on the sea shore, the sound of the waves roaring and the water lapping against their feet seems heightened; it’s almost like a refrain set against their conversation. Other sights and sounds are similarly accentuated: the chirruping of insects, the rustling of blades of grass, a shot of migrating birds in formation, the violence of trees being chopped down by the settlers.
But beautiful though these scenes are, The New World eventually sinks into tedium. The interior monologues don’t have the same effect that they did in The Thin Red Line, partly because the characters don’t carry much weight. Colin Farrell’s performance as John Smith is especially problematic. He’s surprisingly good in a couple of the early scenes, but the bulk of his performance is built on a single puppy-eyed expression that combines bewilderment with vulnerability: it’s like he’s stuck in a phone booth all over again, with an unseen psychopath pointing a gun at him. Christian Bale is nondescript, fine actors like Christopher Plummer and David Thewliss don’t have much to do and the best performer on view, the 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher as the tribal princess, can’t salvage the film single-handed.
And yet, even when a Malick film doesn’t work, it can be just as interesting as the successes of many other directors. Watching The New World, I kept thinking how many other directors, given this story to work with, would have belaboured the point about the tragedies that can result from the differences between people; perhaps placed the conflicts between the settlers and the Indians in the larger context of America's violent history. Malick is not very concerned with all this. He is of course concerned in an immediate sense with his protagonists, their thoughts and feelings; but for him the larger picture is much larger than the history of the US or even perhaps the history of humankind.
Also, paradoxically, watching this director work for years on a project only to produce an unsatisfying film at the end of it makes me even more respectful of his approach to his art. A Spielberg can make a turkey one year and then redeem himself the next with a film that is a commercial success (or a critical success, since he swings both ways). A director like Malick doesn’t have that bulwark. He can only trust his instincts, carry on working at the pace he is comfortable with, unmindful of the world outside, and hope that something of his vision actually makes it to the final film and is appreciated, at least by a few. It must be a lonely feeling.
(More on Malick in this post I wrote a long time ago, mainly about his first film Badlands, but also on other elements of his directorial style.)