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The Films of Terrence Malick


Days of Heaven

The Thin Red Line

The New World

The Tree of Life (June 3/11)

Filmmaker Terrence Malick's most experimental feature to date, The Tree of Life explores the creation of the universe and how it ties into one family's existence in the 1950s. There's little doubt that The Tree of Life fares best in its opening half hour, as Malick, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, kicks off the proceedings with a series of impressionistic scenes detailing the exploits of characters from different time periods. It eventually becomes clear that Malick's focus is a man (Brad Pitt) and a woman (Jessica Chastain) learning of the death of their child, and it's rather remarkable to note that such moments come off as surprisingly heartwrenching - as Malick offers little in the way of character development or expository dialogue. The strength of these scenes ensures that the narrative-free, character-free stretch that follows, in which Malick essentially documents the universe's beginnings, is actually far more engrossing than one might've anticipated, with the bizarre yet compelling vibe heightened by the breathtaking, Koyaanisqatsi-like nature of Malick's visual (and aural) directorial choices. It's only as the movie segues into its 1950s-set midsection that the viewer's interest begins to wane, as Malick offers up a decidedly uneventful domestic drama that is, by and large, focused on the increasingly antagonistic relationship between Pitt's character and his oldest son (Hunter McCracken's Jack). The freewheeling, lackadaisical atmosphere is perpetuated by Malick's ongoing emphasis on seemingly inconsequential tangents and asides, and although some of this stuff is admittedly quite enthralling, it ultimately does seem clear that this stretch could've used a few more passes through the editing bay. By the time the striking yet baffling finale - which features the film's various characters converging on a celestial (?) beach - rolls around, The Tree of Life has certainly established itself as a singular bit of avant-garde filmmaking that ultimately makes up in captivating visuals and pervasive mood what it lacks in context and exposition. (And it goes without saying that the film practically demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible.)

out of

To The Wonder

Knight of Cups (March 22/16)

Terrence Malick finally crawls all the way up his own ass with the unwatchable and laughably pretentious Knight of Cups, as the movie, which suffers from a total lack of narrative momentum, generally plays like a parody of a contemporary Malick feature and wastes the talents of an astoundingly talented cast that includes, among dozens of others, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Jason Clarke, Cate Blanchett, and Brian Dennehy. There's absolutely no story here; Malick instead offers up an interminable series of pointless sequences in which Bale's wide-eyed, morose Rick wanders through one beautifully-shot locale to the next, with the movie's expected absence of spoken dialogue ensuring that Rick and the various other "characters" remain hopelessly one-dimensional and underdeveloped (which is putting it mildly). Malick's emphasis on ludicrously meaningless voice-over narration (eg "see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible") is compounded by a creeping realization that 90% of this stuff is absolutely indecipherable, as the various actors have evidently been directed to deliver their incoherent monologues in as hushed and mumblingly a tone as they can muster. The viewer, it goes without saying, becomes increasingly desperate to find something - anything - to embrace within the aggressively tedious proceedings, with the ongoing inclusion of oddball elements, including a more-interesting-than-any-human limping pelican and a game of spot-the-random-celebrity during an endless party sequence, ensuring that, at the very least, one doesn't quite completely retreat into their mental safe space. Knight of Cups is ultimately nothing short of a colossal failure that hopelessly marks the apex of Malick's experimentalism, and it's clear that the filmmaker should, in the future, abandon any pretense of narrative and just focus on a Baraka-esque series of images.

no stars out of

© David Nusair