My latest investigation into a possible UK release for Terrence Malick’s Knight Of Cups did not come up short like any of my other ventures I’m happy to say, I don’t know if this is true or not but apparently it’s getting a Blu-Ray and DVD release on the 22nd of August, and dear God I hope that’s accurate, do you know how long I’ve been waiting to see this film, DO YOU? There are two reasons I feel like doing a little bit of a retrospective on the films of Terrence Malick, the first one being that I absolutely love him, he’s one of my all time favourite movie directors and I have loved pretty much everything he’s ever done, an opinion that may have gone unquestioned during the 90’s and early 2000’s but nowadays those words are considered somewhat controversial.
I’ll get into a bit more detail in a little bit but for now, my second reason – he has about three-or-so films on their way, Knight Of Cups, Voyage Of Time and Weightless (a title that may be changed at any time), and, as a huge fan of Mr. Malick, I’m excited for all of them, I mean the man who went into an almost 20 year hiatus in-between movies now has at least three nearing release/completion around the same time? I am in heaven right now.
I understand that Knight Of Cups hasn’t the best reviews in the world, much like To The Wonder and The Better Angels (which he only produced but it was heavily inspired by him stylistically so it’s worth bringing up) the critics have been a little bit snooty about it thus far which saddens me, Mark Kermode wasn’t exactly keen and, at the moment, it sports a 46% on Rotten Tomatoes. But I can’t really say I’m surprised, as I hear this film doesn’t really have a… oh, what do you call them… ah, yes, that’s right – a script.
Yes, Terry’s films haven’t been made without first writing a script since Tree Of Life, and even before then the scripts weren’t used very much, but, if I’m honest, that’s one of the many reasons I find him fascinating, how his latest pictures consist entirely of on-the-spot improvisation, filmed from either small pages written the previous night or by telling the actors to literally do whatever comes to mind while he points the camera at them, he can think of shots and scenarios on the spot, scoop up millions of feet of film and edit it all together to make deeply philosophical and beautiful movies.
He may be a notorious recluse who never makes public appearances, he may be hopelessly shy, given that he’s never done an interview and only recently has allowed photos to be taken of him while on set, but the man knows how to craft beauty and clearly have fun while he’s doing it. I seriously love this guy, and with some new movies on the way, I see an opportunity to just indulge and talk about him for a bit, I mean why would I pass that up?
His first movie, also known as the one with the clearest narrative, which tells the story of two young sociopaths who form a relationship and head out on the road killing pretty much everyone they come across. In my opinion, this is the best work Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek have ever done, the story is inspired by the crime spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate in the 1950’s and while the two leads are not supposed to be playing them exactly, they are so convincing in the realism of their performances, you’d swear this was all really happening, let alone based on the truth.
The image of Sheen standing in cuffs talking to the press, as cool as ice and joking with his police escorts looks so much like archive photographs of real life serial killers in similar circumstances it’s almost sickening, the murder scenes are barbaric, yet are committed with child-like naiveté and are processed through the twisted minds of the perpetrators the same way as a dog when he sees his reflection and almost isn’t sure what to make of it, it’s beautiful looking, thought provoking and, despite feeling like a typical Malick fever dream, has a pinch of realism to it that very few films have been able to replicate.
DAYS OF HEAVEN
A film that, in a way, wasn’t actually finished properly, at least as far as principal photography is concerned. The tale of a husband and wife who pretend to be brother and sister while working on a panhandle, who orchestrate a scheme to marry the rich landowner so they can claim his fortune after his terminal illness claims him, was plagued with compromise. Tensions were high on set, with crewmen quitting because Malick didn’t look like he knew what he was doing, machinery broke down, the schedule was all over the place and, according to rumor; Richard Gere was not exactly 100% committed.
Editing took 2-3 years, with an improvised voice over being added to help the narrative along and what emerged is one of the most aesthetically satisfying films ever, every shot feels perfect, just right for the moment, and that’s really all the film wants to be judged on. It has story and character and good performances but in the foreground sits the style, and I don’t mean that as a criticism, you want the truth? I’ve never considered style over substance to be a valid criticism, more style than substance? – So what? Days Of Heaven my not be his proudest work, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful or eyeball thirst quenching.
So began Malick’s near 20-year disappearance from filmmaking.
There were whispers of his whereabouts for years, all kinds of rumors were floating about the place, then he suddenly popped up with a war movie.
THE THIN RED LINE
This film marks several “firsts” for Malick, his first film after 20 years of hiding, the first (and only) time he adapted a book; and the first time Hollywood was introduced to, what would soon become, the notorious editing of Terrence Malick, from this moment forth, being cast meant nothing, being the main character meant nothing, your role in his film would be determined by the editing, something that would go on to annoy at least three big stars before becoming more expected in later years.
This WW2 epic about the battle of Mount Austen, on paper, starred Adrian Brody, alongside a very long list of big names, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Nick Nolte; it goes on, and on. Upon seeing the film, however, poor Mr. Brody discovered that his supposed starring role had been reduced to a no-speaking role that lasted for a few minutes of screen time, the whole thing had been re-edited around Jim Caviezel’s character, and yeah; he was probably very cross. This film had every reason to be a mess but it just feels so bloody epic and clean cut, it’s a giant monster of a film, it’s 3 hours of a single battle sequence that happens to be populated with big names; which fortunately do nothing to hold it back like they could have.
THE NEW WORLD
This is where things started to get really weird, most will look back and say that Thin Red Line was where Malick’s hold on traditional narrative began to loosen up but I would say that at least Thin Red Line has what looks like a structure. But his live action retelling of the story of Pocahontas really gives narrative the middle finger, big name stars are established, then killed, or have their names appear in the opening credits, and then don’t appear until last twenty-or-so minutes. Not that I’m complaining or anything, it’s just a bit weird, and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so, Christopher Plummer wasn’t cut out as much as Adrian Brody but that doesn’t mean the editing style still didn’t irritate him and cause him to write an angry letter.
This is one of those few occasions where Colin Farrell actually appeared in something good, he’s a great actor, and I think series 2 of True Detective and the Miami Vice movie are underrated (even though he himself might disagree there), but very rarely is he in anything that’s all that good, so it’s nice when exceptions like this come along. It’s almost no use saying that the film is beautiful to look at, because they all are, but it’s still worth a mention, giant practical sets everywhere next to real period ships and populated with magnificent costumes, it’s a real feast for the eyes. I wouldn’t say it’s one of his best, but it’s a nice movie, very sweet and dreamy as usual, great looking, and with Malick, that’s really all we need.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Tree Of Life is one of my all time favourite movies, it won the Golden Palme at Cannes, was booed upon being announced, just like when it premiered (typical Cannes reaction there, those people wouldn’t know cinema etiquette if it bent them over and… well, you get the picture), but you know what? It dam well deserved that honor. It was here that Malick threw narrative completely out the window and just did whatever the hell he wanted, and what he wanted was a grand epic that details every single aspect of growing up and understanding life itself through the naïve eyes of a child, throw in a colossal examination of the creation of the known universe in one of the greatest scenes in movie history, and you have Tree of Life, something more than a film, something God-like.
Religion, pessimism, love, anger, life, death, good, evil, and all the wonders of the world around us and their place within time itself are all brought forth to the table, not one thing is missing to jeopardize the worthiness of its title. Everything about this film I love, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the performances from not just Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, although they are brilliant, but the child actors too. It doesn’t take much for children in movies to annoy me, but these kids nail it wonderfully. It’s not a film for casual watching or really general audiences, as proven by cinemas having to take action because too many people were walking out, but I love it, it’s a beast, a beautiful one, and perhaps my primary reason for admiring Mr. Malick so much, I like/love all of his films, all of them, but I think this is the big one for me, maybe tying with Thin Red Line.
TO THE WONDER
Remember earlier I said that saying I love Terrence Malick was a controversial thing to do, well, here’s the reason, most of his films are polarizing beyond belief, especially Tree Of Life, but To The Wonder, by far, seems to be his most critically hated. Despite having scripts for all his previous other films, he rarely ever stuck close by them, always encouraging actors to improvise or quickly pointing the camera at a sunset that suddenly appeared, To The Wonder had no script whatsoever. No one involved had any idea what the film would be about or what would be in store for him or her the next day of shooting.
Malick made it up as he went along, and the result is something I cannot help but admire, it doesn’t have the magnitude of Tree Of Life or the story telling of Badlands, but in a way, I think that’s what I like about it, it’s unusual but also easy going. Is it style over substance? Maybe, it doesn’t have the same level of depth of even the works of his I would call style over substance despite still really enjoying, but perhaps what it represents is a different kind of depth, one not created of juxtaposition but rather in a more spiritual sense, on the surface it is a creatively filmed collection of interconnected actions, the cast hugging, running through fields, narrating various scripture and walking around luscious scenery, but I can’t shake the feeling that the emotions it can generate are ones of transcendent ecstasy, it’s an experience, not entertainment.
And those are all the films of his I have so far, I absolutely cannot wait for his next three, despite being critically lambasted, Knight of Cups seems to be the spiritual cousin to To The Wonder and since I really like that film then I think I’m in safe hands, Voyage Of Time looks like if the creation of the universe sequence from Tree Of Life was given its own movie, which sounds awesome to me, and Weightless actually looks like Malick is starting to turn back to narrative cinema after a long break, I could be wrong but the synopsis seems to be promising some less abstract, not that I really mind whether it’s abstract or not, but it looks interesting, Terrence Malick making a musical drama with Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett, what more could I ask for.