Any defense of a Terrence Malick film must inevitably respond to attacks on the director’s style — many of which are superfluous. His films — like Spielberg’s, Scorsese’s and even Cameron’s — are big, thematically and stylistically. They’re concerned with broad ideas and painted with broad strokes.
I hear “pretentious,” “condescending” and “aimless” all lobbed at Malick as insults (all of which, nowadays, seem to ring as compliments), but I can hardly see how his films, as accessible and universal as they are, could ever be considered exclusivist. To say the films are unconcerned with character, narrative and cohesion is to acknowledge their strongest assets. There are few directors working in the American commercial mainstream (aside from maybe David Lynch) whose work so effortlessly evokes the cosmic.
In this regard, I value his films for the same reasons I’m drawn to dislike them. To watch them with an open mind is to submit oneself to a wholesale rejection of irony — an embrace of fairly traditional, conventional representations of beauty. The poetic presentation of nature stands as a radical tonic to pretension. Malick’s treatment of the natural world doesn’t seek to inundate us with crafty juxtapositions or contrivance. They are independent of artifice and full of it. He edits reels and reels of footage into a world merely inhabited by his actors. His films are babies of the editing room and yet seem to live outside the screen as whole worlds unto themselves.
Malick’s action film, “The Thin Red Line,” is (next to “Badlands”) easily his most accessible and engaging. It deserves merit as few war films do for valorizing nothing and nobody. It presents visceral combat in two taut, seismic swells — climbing the hills of Guadalcanal, decimating the landscape and soldiers both.
It’s hard to deny the sensuality of Malick’s films — even when “sex” itself appears to be something feared and treasured rather than enjoyed. We’re free to ignore the spoken overtones barely keeping the film from collapse. “Line” asks us to submit to its totality, and if we allow it, it transports. The whistle and crash of artillery, sweating foreheads, stenches of rotting flesh, sunlight sweeping out from clouds as soldiers meet their doom — these are the accoutrements of an utter compositional marvel.
And of course, Malick’s dualities are obvious. Conflicts are laid out plainly. And when it comes to Malick’s best work, of which “The Thin Red Line” can safely be included, that conflict seems to exist, all too tragically, in the jaded construction of our own flimsy, aesthetic vainglory.
Hollywood is full of would-be “auteurs” trying to deliver profound messages that end up seeming trite and heavy-handed. None are more infuriating, however, than Terrence Malick, Hollywood’s resident Mr. “I studied philosophy at Harvard, so I’m smarter than you.” His recent Oscar-nominated film, “The Tree of Life,” is particularly infuriating — Sean Penn’s adult character is deeply impacted by childhood scars inflicted by his daddy, Brad Pitt, but his mother was nice and somehow this all ties into Creation and the Bible. It features empty, flowerly voiceover about “the way of nature and the way of grace,” randomly intercut with what looks like a nature documentary.
Critics and the Academy alike rave about how it’s ingenious and different, but it’s not. It’s the same vapid, pretentious crap that Malick has spoon-fed us for decades. In 1998, for example, Malick gave us his attempt at a World War II film, “The Thin Red Line.” He saw his film, a dramatization of the Battle of Guadalcanal, as a look into the unspoiled Eden of the Pacific island invaded by the “green poison” of war. Instead of honoring the dead and the dying who struggled to keep the world free, Malick gave us birds twisting in agony as the pristine forests of Guadalcanal get shredded apart by artillery.
It’s beautifully shot and there’s no denying that Malick has an eye for composition, but it’s utterly unmoving, especially when framed against perhaps the greatest conflict the world has ever known. With a degree in philosophy, it’s surprising that Malick failed to realize material things can always be replaced — come peacetime, the island will slowly restore itself. It’s the human element of war — the millions of young soldiers who laid their lives on the line in the Pacific theater — that is truly irreplaceable.
And when he tries to deal with these human characters, Malick is, unsurprisingly, inept. The film’s central character — a man who deserts his unit in favor of the simpler life of an island native — is impossible to relate with. His internal musings are cloying, and though they’re obviously meant as the words of a jaded man tired of fighting, they come off instead as a veneer of meaningless posturing that cloaks his internal cowardice.
“What’s this war in the heart of nature?” he asks. “Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature?”
Snore. His companions are no better. There’s a soldier who kills an enemy and muses that nobody can touch him for killing that man and committing murder. No shit, Sherlock — this is war. Another soldier, whose words end the movie, ask questions that are even more insipid: “Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend.”
Through his pretension, Malick manages to suck all the power and, for that matter, all the dramatic tension from one of the clearest examples of good versus evil in recorded history. Who says philosophy majors don’t contribute to society?