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Finding Hollywood’s most elusive director

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

There are those filmmakers who follow the Quentin Tarantino track – little formal education, minimal film school education and a filmmaking appreciation developed from cinephilia. On the opposite extreme of the spectrum is Terrence Malick – a guy who got his philosophy degree from Harvard, became a Rhodes Scholar, taught philosophy at MIT, wrote for Life, The New Yorker and Newsweek and then graduated from the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Studies.

Malick’s filmography is equally impressive, though often puzzling. In a career that spans four decades, the writer/director has made only four films (less than one film every ten years): “Badlands” (1973), “Days of Heaven” (1978), “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005). In particular, Malick’s first two films were such a potent one-two punch that it seemed impossible that his subsequent pictures would fare as well.

He is also one of Hollywood’s great enigmas, a director who rarely discusses his work and who disappeared from the public eye at the apex of his success. He retreated to France after 1978’s “Days of Heaven” and did not make a film for two decades.

Malick is one of the few directors who can consider himself an artist with a capital “A.” He writes and directs his own films, and his personality is stamped into every frame. In his review of “The Thin Red Line,” critic Roger Ebert points out that, “the central intelligence in the film doesn’t belong to any of the characters, or even to their voice-over philosophies. It belongs to Malick.” Such is true of all his pictures, in which the narration seems more suited to the director’s philosophical wonderings than the characters who speak it.

Budgeted at less than half a million dollars, “Badlands” was an auspicious inaugural picture for Malick, ranking as one of the best writer/director debuts. Based loosely on the real-life Starkweather-Fugate murders, it follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), two young lovers on the run after Kit kills Holly’s father. A critical hit, “Badlands” established Malick’s distinct style: voice-over narration, minimal plotting, sparse dialogue, breathtaking landscapes and a self-conscious artiness. Some still consider “Badlands” to be Malick’s finest film, though its reputation has been overshadowed by 1978’s “Days of Heaven.”

Like its predecessor, “Days of Heaven” employs an elliptical narrative and voice-over narration, but it outstrips “Badlands” in cinematographic beauty and artsy poeticism. Less a movie than a visual elegy to a by-gone era, the film follows Bill (Richard Gere), a factory worker who escapes to the farm fields of Texas after accidentally killing his boss. With his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) in tow, he begins working on a plantation. When he discovers that the farmer who owns the fields (Sam Shepard) is terminally ill, Bill convinces Abby to marry him for the inheritance.

If nothing else, “Days of Heaven” is masterpiece for the way in which it was filmed – mostly shot during “magic hour” in natural lighting, the picture is absolutely gorgeous, easily one of the most beautiful films ever made. Though it forsook narrative convention and easy interpretation, its status as an artistically challenging film has never been questioned.

For many, “The Thin Red Line” came dangerously close to dismantling the director’s legacy. The near-perfection of his first two films and the ensuing long layover built expectations to unrealistic levels. Still, the film is remarkably unfocused, sprawling over 170 minutes with little regard for plot cohesion. An ethereal meditation on the meaning of war, “The Thin Red Line” is interesting and challenging, but still something of a letdown for casual fans.

The argument could be made that Malick’s films are cold, indirect and detached. Nature seems more important to the director than characters, which might be off-putting for some. His films are by no means popcorn entertainment, and their philosophical yearnings are more suited to art houses than cinemaplexes. Still, for those who haven never seen a Terrence Malick film, the maverick director’s few pictures are well worth the time and effort. Few pictures are as meticulous and visually stunning as the four films in his oeuvre.