Terrence Malick’s Emergence in New Hollywood

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Terrence Malick's first three films. Photo: Bryon Dudley/Iowa Informer

I’ve been slowly working my way through Terrence Malick’s films and have seen the first three now, thanks to a sale on the Criterion website (their versions of films are pretty much the gold standard). Malick is an interesting director who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford (he translated Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons), and used his philosophical background as a way to make films. He was part of the “New Hollywood” movement, a period in history where film wasn’t as financially viable, so studios were more willing to take risks.

Badlands (1973) was Malick’s first film, and what a debut! It helped launch the careers of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, who are both very young in the film (Sheen’s sons Charlie and Emilio Estevez make their film debuts here as well, as extras). It has a very Bonnie and Clyde feel to it, but is based on a different true-to-life criminal couple, Charles Starkweather and Carli Ann Fugate. Sheen’s character, Kit, is mesmerizing as a criminal with so much charisma that even the police are charmed by him, and the film moves seamlessly between gritty and beautiful as it travels with the characters across the Midwest, fleeing family and police.

Malick followed up Badlands with Days of Heaven (1978), a story about another couple, this time migrant workers, who get involved with a wealthy landowner. The film features early work by Richard Gere as one of the leads, an incredible (but subdued) performance by Sam Shepard, and an Ennio Morricone score (which got him his first Academy Awards nomination). One of the staples of a Malick film is a contemplative voice over, and we get that here in the form of Linda Manz, who plays Gere’s little sister — Manz was just 15 at the time, but her voiced observations are crucial to the feel and plot of the film. And it’s a beautiful film to look at, with incredible cinematography shot primarily right before sunset each day of production, culminating in a scene with a field burning that looks genuinely dangerous (and the notes in the Blu-ray confirm it was very close to getting out of hand!).

After Days of Heaven, Malick took nearly twenty years off from film making, returning in 1997 for The Thin Red Line. One of the best war movies ever made, this gorgeously shot film alternates between naturalistic jungle scenes that could be in National Geographic documentaries and chaotic, realistic battles. It never gets gory, but the stakes feel incredibly intense, as the soldiers doubt command and put their lives on the line at every turn. It also features an all star cast, which it uses sparingly — George Clooney and John Travolta appear briefly, John C. Reilly gives one of his few dramatic performances, and Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Cusack are treated almost as extras. Philosophical voiceovers are used to get us directly into the characters’ heads to really make you feel like you’re imbedded with the soldiers.

I’m looking forward to continuing on with Malick’s catalog, but these first three films are a stunning testament to the career of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Highly recommended viewing.

Bryon Dudley
Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.