Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

“All Faces Are the Same Man”: Considering Terrence Malick

In Film, Film Theory on May 29, 2011 at 1:16 pm

By Eric Plaag

I think I first fell in love with Terrence Malick’s visual and narrative styles in early 2001. I was living alone in Rockport, Massachusetts, and for lots of reasons I shall not indulge here, the world felt very much against me. I had never seen a Malick film at that point, but a friend had repeatedly suggested that I needed to see The Thin Red Line, Malick’s loose adaptation of the James Jones novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal. I was weary of thinking about World War II, largely because I’d been using the opening 27 minutes from Saving Private Ryan in a college class I had taught several times a year over the preceding three years. I was tired of carnage. I was sick of seeing the horrors of war on screen. But one lonely weekend in Rockport, I took a chance on The Thin Red Line anyway.

That viewing experience, which I sadly did not get to enjoy in a theater, nevertheless transformed me. Completely so. For reasons I shall return to, watching The Thin Red Line saved me in some respects. It made me a different person. It opened my eyes to a connectedness among seemingly unrelated events, people, and things. It reminded me of who I had once thought I could be. And that’s exactly what I think Malick hoped it would do for me and anyone else who might see it.

This might all seem a little strange and over-the-top for a non-veteran to say about a World War II movie, but my answer to anyone who thinks so is that maybe you haven’t seen Malick’s work. Or if you have, maybe you haven’t let it seep into your bones. If the latter, I’d argue that’s because his work touches on things that frighten you to consider, that seem so huge in a philosophical sense that you’re not quite sure what do when he confronts you with them. It doesn’t help that his work is often dressed up in “conventional” stories that at first seem as though they might be, at least from a plot perspective, like any of a dozen similar films you’ve seen before. Then he sticks it to you.

Consider, for example, Malick’s first film, Badlands (1973), which was based loosely on the events surrounding a murder spree carried out by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Malick casts Martin Sheen as 28-year-old Kit Carruthers, a small-town roustabout who can’t even keep a job as a garbage man. Kit soon meets 15-year-old Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), the bored, naïve daughter of a South Dakota sign painter. Their courting consists primarily of Kit holding court, rambling on for hours at a time, then concluding, “I got some stuff to say. Guess I’m lucky that way.” When Holly does try to speak, Kit calls her “stupid,” or worse, and Holly acknowledges in her narration of the film that Kit “doesn’t care about a thing I say.” They are, to put it bluntly, a match made in hell.

In spite of these red flags, though, Holly loves Kit, or at least expresses something similar to what she’s gleaned from books, movies, and popular culture as being love. Her sense of affection is more like idealistic worship, all convention and cliché, while Kit’s equally hackneyed reciprocation isn’t love at all, since his deeply rooted sociopathic behavior renders him incapable of even understanding the word. To Holly, Kit is James Dean, and she says as much. To Kit, Holly is a girl worth shooting her disapproving father over, then documenting the fact even as he tries to cover up the crime to buy some time for their getaway. In an utterly fascinating moment that may be a seminal indication of Malick’s interest in the distinction between how his characters think about themselves and how they present themselves to the world, Kit narrates a sanitized account of his feelings and urges by recording them onto a 45rpm disk at a Voice-O-Graph, then leaves this recording for the authorities to find.

What follows is a murderous spree in which Kit dispatches his victims with a carelessness that is almost humorous because it is so horrific; Holly, meanwhile, watches and records, blissfully unaware that his sociopathic urges are shaping her, too, or at least numbing her sense of decency. “At times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown,” she says after living in the woods with him for several weeks, “so I could watch.” Interspersed with these scenes of their activities are Malick’s trademark cinematographic diversions to things that seem completely unrelated to the story at hand and yet underscore the importance of all of it. As they first arrive in the woods, Malick turns to gorgeous tracking images of the natural world, then allows us to witness Kit’s destructive manipulation of that environment to suit his needs and purposes. Likewise, as Holly narratively weighs her destiny against her alternative fate if she had not met Kit, Malick lingers on close-ups of the stereo cards Holly has salvaged from her father’s home as heirlooms. Like those stereo cards, Malick’s presentation of the manhunt for Kit appears in sepia stock stills, underscoring Holly’s and Kit’s mutual hope that their lives should be a series of images to be consumed by a vast public hungry for excitement. Kit accompanies these images with a Dictaphone recording of platitudes, at the end of which he asks the listener to “excuse the grammar.” In case there is any doubt, Kit confirms Malick’s criticism of American fascination with notoriety by revealing his greatest fear: being shot without a girl at his side to cry out his name.

In case any of this seems familiar, it should. True Romance and Natural Born Killers are both shameless ripoffs of this film, even to the point that composer Hans Zimmer penned his famous track “You’re So Cool” for the score of True Romance as a “variation” in tribute to Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” the prevalent track in Badlands. Paying homage is one thing, I guess, but both of these films lack Malick’s subtlety and thereby miss the point entirely. While True Romance glorifies its violence and the recklessness of its central relationship, and Natural Born Killers comes with Oliver Stone’s overwrought telegraphing of his message about our society’s fixation on violence (all the while feeding the prurient interests of his viewers), Malick never veers away from his central text or the obligations it carries for both filmmaker and viewer. It is a difficult thing to get folks to watch ninety minutes about two characters who are utterly despicable and yet are presented to us as the story’s protagonists, but this is exactly what he accomplishes, delivering his critique on American culture without ever having to announce what that critique is.

Malick built on this foundation five years later with Days of Heaven (1978), the story of a love triangle among two itinerant farmhands, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), and the farmer who employs them (Sam Shepard). As with Badlands, all three of these characters engage in disgusting behavior, but their lives are nevertheless fascinating because their behavior illustrates the larger point Malick pursues. Here, Bill and Abby find themselves riding the rails into the Texas panhandle in 1916, shortly after Bill kills the foreman at his steel mill job during a dispute whose cause is not altogether clear. Once in Texas along with hundreds of other itinerant workers, Bill and Abby scrape by, pretending to be brother and sister, and living a life that Abby hates and that Bill confides to the farmer (who is not otherwise named) is not “the big score” he once believed he would make in life. As the harvest approaches and it becomes clear that the farmer is living on borrowed time, Bill contrives a plan to marry off Abby to the farmer for the chance to inherit his property upon the farmer’s death. Abby, although horrified at this proposal, plays along. But the farmer doesn’t die his anticipated death, and Abby soon appears to be falling in love with him.

As in Badlands, Days of Heaven is narrated by a naïve, severely damaged character, this time Bill’s actual teen sister Linda (Linda Manz), who moves with them to Texas. Like Holly, Linda puzzles over the behavior she witnesses, trying to draw conclusions about its meaning even as her own damage gets in the way of seeing the truth. The device generally works just as well here, although the visual chaos of the film’s third act undercuts the symbolic effect of Linda’s narration and renders her conclusions almost glib, or at least too knowingly simple for my tastes. Weigh carefully her words as she narrates their arrival at the wheat farm, and one wonders whether Malick intends her to unintentionally foreshadow what is to come or to knowingly interpret for us what she has lived, as if recounting a parable of her own life.

These faults of narrative motivation may be due less to any fault of direction than they are to the sheer power of Malick’s reliance on cinematography and sound design to shape his story. For Malick, the visuals, not Linda’s narration, are the poetry. The sweeping vistas of the Texas panhandle aside (whose vast oceans of wheat threaten to consume Malick’s characters at nearly every moment), Malick uses a handful of visual tropes to communicate meaning in a script that is often sparse in dialogue. The farmer’s house, for example, is a perpetually foreboding and watchful presence, always foreshadowing Bill and Abby’s demise, while the monstrous machinery of industry frequently overwhelms the visuals and the soundtrack, on many occasions obscuring that sparse dialogue and forcing the viewer to read meaning and motivation through the body language of Malick’s characters. The farmer’s small rooftop windmill, for example, often signals the character’s growing angst about Bill and Abby’s true nature, while the sounds of both the iron mill and the threshing machines amplify Malick’s wider observations about the consumable nature of humanity when it comes to the drive of industry. Even in quieter moments, though, the visuals say what neither Malick nor the characters themselves can or will. As Bill and Abby celebrate in a scrim-covered gazebo one night with the members of a visiting air circus, the suspicious farmer stands outside the gazebo, watching their silhouettes interact. The pesky, persistent winds of the plains frustrate his designs, however, leaving him to wonder whether their apparent closeness is a function of an actual embrace or just the action of the wind upon the fluttering scrim.

As in all of his work, Malick also relies heavily on the repeated diversion to scenes of the natural world. Nowhere is this pattern more successful in Days of Heaven than in the third act, where such scenes serve as simultaneous evasions from and confirmations of the horror unfolding on screen. As the locusts begin to swarm the farmer’s fields like a plague unleashed by God, Malick shows us their arrival and behavior in a manner that mimics the movements of the itinerant workers we have watched come and go, work and consume, for much of the film. When a fire breaks out that night, and the winds whip into a frenzy, it is often difficult to distinguish the panicked reactions of the workers trying to flee those flames from the fiery consumption of the locusts. This long, almost wordless sequence—which lasts a full seven minutes—is not only visually stunning and brilliant, but it also serves as the pivot for the film, validating Linda’s story from the train and bringing together all of Malick’s subtle social commentary on the American industrial world in a manner that is both incisive and overpowering. It is no accident that Malick sets this story in 1916, the height of the American Progressive Era; even as workers were gaining improvements in safety, pay, and working conditions, the system remained terribly flawed, and Malick knows it. His film therefore may appear to be about a love triangle on a Texas wheat farm (indeed, this is usually how it is described in summaries), as well as the sins that stem from the decisions those characters make, but these plot conventions are mere details. Days of Heaven is really Malick’s treatise on capitalism and the sins of an industrialized culture, his meditation on how destructive those forces are to the very souls who depend on its machinery for survival.

In this same way, The Thin Red Line may be set in Guadalcanal, but it is by no means a recounting of the Allied victory there. Fought over six months in 1942-43, Guadalcanal was a grueling, seesaw campaign that saw seven naval battles, three land battles, and almost incessant air combat, resulting in roughly 7,000 American and 30,000 Japanese dead. Malick, however, opens with one of his trademark images of nature, in this case an enormous crocodile-like beast crawling through the jungle and then sinking into a pool covered with vivid-green algae. Malick’s producer, Bobby Geisler, was once quoted as saying that Malick imagined The Thin Red Line as a “Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison…of war,” and that might be as sure a thumbnail sketch of what this film really is than just about anything else.

Shortly after the film opens, we hear Private Witt (Jim Caviezel)—an AWOL soldier living amongst Melanesian natives—ask through an internal monologue, “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself, the land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power but two?” These questions are layered over scenes of Melanesian youth living their lives, playing, working, swimming, followed by signs of Witt living among them, content, happy, perpetually mesmerized. To a fellow AWOL soldier, Witt acknowledges that he asked his mother on her deathbed whether she was afraid, to which she shook her head. “I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her,” he adds. “I couldn’t find nothing beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it would be when I died, what it would be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever going to draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same calm, ‘cause that’s where it’s hidden, the immortality I didn’t see.” Witt is a man who can then ask a local, without an ounce of self-consciousness, shame, or embarrassment, whether the native children ever fight with one another, or if the young child she holds in her arms is afraid of him, or if the woman herself is.

That alone should tell you what this film is about, but for clarity, I shall indulge a more traditional narrative approach. When Witt’s First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) finds him and imprisons him on a troop carrier, the two find it impossible to reconcile Witt’s actions. “You’ll never be a real soldier,” Welsh insists, “not in God’s world.” Assigned to a stretcher bearer unit as punishment, Witt answers him: “I can take anything you dish out. I’m twice the man you are.” Welsh objects that men can only look out for themselves, while Witt disagrees entirely. The action then tests their argument, following the landing at Guadalcanal and the brutal attempt to take Hill 210, a bunker-enforced position. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), a man repeatedly passed over for promotion, demands a frontal assault on the hill by Captain Staros (Elias Koteas). As the unit is torn about by Japanese fire, and utter chaos and carnage rules the day, Witt asks to be reassigned to the company so he can get into the fighting. A second attack, led in part by Captain Gaff (John Cusack), Witt, and Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), succeeds in driving the Japanese from the hill. In the closing act of the film, Witt leads a reconnaissance mission to help safeguard his unit, forcing him to confront the presence of evil in a place he at first regarded as Eden. In an effort to save his company from annihilation, Witt creates a diversion, then must make a choice about how he will find that calm in his moment of death.

That may be the plot, but it’s not what makes this film the best World War II film I have ever seen and probably the best one ever made. Not at all. What does? Imagine, for example, the long internal monologues and luscious flashbacks Private Bell has about his home life, his idealization of it, his yearning to be with the wife he adores more than life itself, then the sudden discovery—after he has relied on his confidence in her existence to him to survive unspeakable savagery—that she desperately wants a divorce so that she can marry another man and no longer be lonely. Imagine two soldiers pinned down by heavy Japanese fire in the deep grass of that vicious hillside, only to discover that their most immediate concern might be the cobra poised to strike at them. Imagine Malick’s handling of the Japanese enemy in such a way that we are allowed to see the assault repeatedly from their perspective without ever seeing their faces. Only when the Allied forces reach their bunkers and lines, and are confronted with having to kill those Japanese, do we see them as human. Only then are our characters confronted with the full magnitude of what they do and the fear that paralyzes those to whom they do it. Malick does not flinch from these horrors. He does not turn away, not from the carnage, not from the shell shock and madness, not from the isolated suffering on a wide open field of battle, except on occasion to give us one of his trademark symbolic shots of nature, such as a badly wounded young bird struggling out of a tree stump, or a small fern that wilts at a soldier’s touch, or sunlight streaming through the shrapnel-shredded leaves.

If this reads like poetry—the visuals and Malick’s reliance on the internal monologue/flashback device—it should. John Toll’s cinematography and Malick’s willingness to linger for long tracking shots through the deep sawgrass in which this calamity unfolds are staggering to behold. What Malick truly masters, though, is capturing the way in which we human beings think about our own experiences as we live them, visualizing the past in fleeting snippets of memory that shape our nows, or the ways in which we imagine what others would think or say, if only we are compassionate enough. I know of no other director who has the capacity to enter our subconscious and tug at those emotions and thoughts that we often do not speak of to anyone but ourselves. One of the most effective of these moments in The Thin Red Line comes as Witt stands over the half-buried body of a burned Japanese soldier. “Are you righteous, kind?” Witt imagines the dead man saying. “Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness, truth?”

I have never been to war, and I hope that my twelve-year-old son will never have to go. It may be my most fervent wish. But these are the things I imagine he and I would both ponder in the long days of monotony punctuated by the unspeakable horrors of mortal and often senseless combat. There is Malick’s constant philosophical undercurrent about what it means to kill and be killed—how one rightly dies like a man and where killing another man in war stands in the roster of sins (“worse than rape” but “nobody can touch me for it”). There are questions of honor that have little to do with the field of battle, such as when one character promises a dying man that he will write to the man’s wife, only to renege on the promise moments after the man is dead. And there are those moments that are all about war, such as Welsh finally seeing those things Witt spoke of when he races foolishly into crossfire to give a suffering man enough morphine to end his own life. When Staros suggests a Silver Star for Welsh’s heroism, Welsh is clear about where he stands on the madness surrounding them: “You mention me in your fucking orders, and I’ll resign my rating so fast and leave you here to run this busted up outfit by yourself. You understand? Property. The whole fucking thing’s about property.” Malick’s position is clear, too, but this does not mean that he always offers easy answers to the questions he asks. Is Staros a coward for refusing a direct order to lead his men into suicide? Malick never says, and the confusion of what follows leaves viewers to linger on the question for days afterward, rather than being directed to a pat solution that might be easier to swallow and—for that reason alone—more satisfactory to some viewers.

But above all, there is the question, the problem of evil. “Where’s it come from?” Witt asks internally. “How’d it steal into the world? … Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow and the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?” These are the hard questions, the ones that count, the very ones that I believe a movie about war should ask. Issues of strategy or tactics or even the morality of certain actions on the battlefield are nothing more than academic in the face of this. Malick avoids the trap that seemingly great and certainly popular war films like Saving Private Ryan fall into by refusing to neatly organize the conflict into one of good guys versus bad guys. Likewise, he doesn’t follow a Platoon route either, fixing on the chaos and evil in a manner that simply dismisses it as senseless, without asking where that senselessness comes from. Malick asks us to consider something greater than a bifurcated understanding of these themes, and since this is how much of life is—both in and out of war—The Thin Red Line resounds with me as being a serious and meaningful contemplation of war and all that comes with it, something few writers and directors have ever really dared to do. It makes me stand outside myself and consider my connection to the world and the people and the things that surround me, and it demands that I ask big questions about who I am, why I am here, and where I am going.

In a similar vein, Malick intends for The New World, his 2005 consideration of the settlement of Virginia in 1607, to be a meditation on desire and the need of the individual to find soul-satisfying meaning (as opposed to social significance) in his or her life. Focusing on an imagined and utterly fictional account of a purported romantic alliance between Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell), the film traces Pocahontas’s desire to be with Smith at all costs and her ongoing question about who he really is, while also considering Smith’s hesitations about choosing a life with her over a life of material success at the head of the English colonial enterprise. In this retelling of the familiar Pocahontas myth, Smith leaves her behind to explore elsewhere (rather than returning to England with a bad powder burn, as happened in real life), asks a fellow colonist to tell Pocahontas that he is dead once he is gone, then must confront the consequences of his decision when he encounters her as the wife of John Rolfe (Christian Bale) five years later in England.

Here, Malick employs his internal monologue device once more, but too often it redounds upon the film’s spiritual core with a cloying insipidness that plays something like Malick parodying himself. “Is this the man I loved?” Pocahontas asks after she saves the colonists from the long, brutal, inhuman winter at Jamestown known as the Starving Time. “A ghost? Where are you, my love? What do I fear? Can love be?” Similarly, Smith ponders Pocahontas’s meaning to him by concluding, “You are my light. My America,” a line that made me guffaw at its shameless purpleness. Were it not for a handful of other internal monologue moments that are truly effective and moving in the film, such as when Captain Samuel Argall (Yorick van Wageningen) ponders his mutiny against Smith (“Conscience is nuisance; if you don’t believe you have one, what trouble can it be to you?”) or Smith considers abandoning Jamestown to make it on his own in the interior (“That fort is not the world.”), I might have given up on Malick and written off the device as something he had run into the ground. Likewise, many of his long tracking shots of the natural world or of Smith and Pocahontas frolicking, as well as his characters’ customarily fleeting half-memories, bear the trademarks of Malick’s luscious style, but here they seem muted behind Emmanuel Lubezki’s lens and often superfluous to the narrative rather than essential to shaping it. At times, it is as though the poet has fallen too much in love with his own words.

In fairness, my screening of The New World featured the extended version, meaning that I endured 37 minutes more of this bloated epic than most theater audiences had to. Perhaps I might have felt differently if I could have those 37 minutes of my life back. That said, Malick is at his best in The New World when he sticks to what he does best. His visuals in the midst of the attack on Jamestown, during the confusion and horror of the Starving Time, and while Smith survives his incarceration among the Powhatan are on par with much of the material in The Thin Red Line, and his use of the flashback sequences during some of the internal monologue stretches are quite effective and moving, even if the monologues themselves often are not. True, Pocahontas was a mere child (perhaps no more than 10 years old, by Smith’s own contemporaneous account) when she first met Smith, and perhaps Malick intended for this to account for the banality of some of her observations late in the narrative, long after she has seen the English trade and witnessed firsthand the brutality they are capable of (“Why do they want gold? Can’t they make it? Do they eat it?”). The net result is that she comes off as a bit of a simpleton, rather than the hopeful idealist that Malick probably intended and her Indian chief father feared her to be. Because we are uncertain of the value or trustworthiness of her vision, her spiritual return to Virginia and therefore the closing ten minutes of the film leave us uncertain as to what conclusion Malick hopes for us to draw about his mythology of first settlement.

This past Friday, Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, opened in limited release, and I’m hoping to gain access to it sometime in early June. The trailer, a handful of clips, and what little limited buzz there has been suggest that this will be Malick’s meditation on the human need to reconcile our desire to walk a path of love and mercy with our circumstances of living in a world that seems to thrive on suffering and death. I would argue that it has the potential to be his masterwork. Rumor has it that The Tree of Life is one of two end products of a project that Malick has been working on for more than 30 years, and despite some mixed response, it has already won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Following the arc of the life of Jack, a young boy from Texas, the film traces Jack’s lifelong struggle to navigate the labyrinth of life, choosing between “the way of the mother” and “the way of the father.”

Viewing the trailer and the few available scenes from The Tree of Life brings to mind another observation. I think it reveals something about Malick’s work that I have said little about individual acting performances here. Generally speaking, his films do not lend themselves to that kind of critique, especially his more meditative pieces like Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World. I suspect that The Tree of Life will be no different. But I carry another suspicion, a glimpse of an undercurrent that tells me that—as many great artists do—Malick may be recounting stories of which he has no direct experience, but he does so through characters and tropes and scenes that are imbedded in his subconscious and haunt him mercilessly. The mother from The Tree of Life seems nearly indistinguishable from Bell’s wife in The Thin Red Line, not in circumstance but in spirit, as well as in the way she is idealized by both the boy and Bell. Likewise, it seems to me no mistake that the father in The Tree of Life (Brad Pitt) delivers lines that are nearly identical to those Welsh speaks to Witt early on in The Thin Red Line, or that Sean Penn plays both Welsh and the grown-up Jack in The Tree of Life, haunted as an adult by the questions posed to him by his father’s influence in his life.

Is Jack just a stand-in for Malick, the culminating creation of Malick’s career that reveals who Malick the man really is? Perhaps we shall never really know. Malick is a notoriously secretive and reclusive person who shuns interviews, a philosophy graduate who once taught the subject at MIT but says little about the meaning of his own work. I do not doubt, though, that when we watch the images and stories he creates for us, we gaze not just into this philosopher’s mind, but also into the darkest reaches of his soul. This is what art is, what it should be. This is the courage it requires.


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