Difficult Directors: Terrence Malick

What makes a difficult director—and why do their films get made if they're financial risks? Robert Castle examines the case of Terrence Malick.

A difficult director makes a film that frustrates most audiences—although not in the way that an unreliable narrative does—in the telling.

Difficult directors take away the means for their audiences to involve themselves as they generally expect to in a film. It can start with an absence or minimization of dramatic tension. Maybe what’s at stake in the story isn’t obvious or instantly compelling. Then a non-chronological approach adds to our impatience.

All this means is that you generally don’t find the films of a difficult director playing in thousands of theaters for months at a time. You have to go to the art house circuit, like the Ritz at the Bourse. Here’s a selection of its offerings from a week in 2011:

Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Life, Above All (2010)
Passione (2010)
Terri (2011)
The Future (2011)
The Tree of Life (2011)

I had not heard of the first five—two documentaries, a pair of film festival renegades, and a South African drama. These five films have limited audiences, make little money, and occasionally cover their budget because of the presence of a star (John C. Reilly is in Terri). They play at one or two theaters in metropolitan areas and usually last one week.

The last, The Tree of Life, is an exception. Comparatively, its budget is larger, it was tremendously anticipated, its director garners immense respect. But the film still only plays to a maximum of 237 screens across the United States—perhaps two hundred more theaters than the other five put together—and its $13 million box office take is several times large than that of the other five films combined.

I watched The Tree of Life at the Ritz in Voorhees. There were fifteen to twenty people in the theater. When the film ended, someone in the back commented loudly: “That movie sucked.”

My initial reaction to the comment was disbelief. Why would a person come to the film and not know what they are in for? One did not choose to see Tree of Life for its entertainment value. Was there an expectation of greatness or great revelations not realized? Could someone knowingly attend a Terrence Malick film and expect some easy understanding?

Malick has made five movies in thirty-eight years: a trait (extreme in this case) of the difficult director. His most recent films before Tree of Life were The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). The first was his most popular, a war film, based on the fighting at Guadalcanal. Several aspects of the movie befuddled viewers and stimulated their resistance to Malick’s cinematic ends and meanings.

First, there’s the absence of a single character taking us through the story; that load is shouldered by many narratives from soldiers played by Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, and Woody Harrelson.

Second, many people were disconcerted by the brief appearances of several stars. When John Travolta and George Clooney are featured in a two-and-a-half hour film, we want them on screen for more than ten minutes. The difficult director ignores what the audience desires.

Third, there’s the nature thing. What’s with the native Pacific islanders, the crocodile, and Jim Caviezel swimming naked in the lagoon? This is a go-to motif for a difficult director, but it seems pretentious.

This theme returns in Tree of Life, only instead of the minds of soldiers at war, we are thrown into the core of a family straining to hang together.

But without accepting Malick’s cosmic approach, we deny the main thrust of his vision: man is caught in the natural cycle of life and death. His narrative strives to connect the individual to the collective consciousness, integrating individual ego with social mandate (fighting a war).

This theme returns in Tree of Life, only instead of the minds of soldiers at war, we are thrown into the core of a family straining to hang together. You haven’t seen cosmic patterns until you watcha film in which the story stops and we are shown 15 minutes of the evolution of the planet. The segment reminds one of the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey; indeed, it functions in Malick’s film not unlike it does in Kubrick’s.

Malick’s next film, The New World, brings together the natural world of virgin America, the native Americans who live there, and the interloping English led by John Smith (Colin Farrell) and John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Again, there’s a split narrative—those of Smith and Rolfe—but what differs about this film is the presence of Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher).

What’s most impressive is the way Malick deals with history. His narrative approach gives the story a feel of the present time of 1607 and later. There’s no melodramatic hyping of the Anglo-Indian conflict or of Pocahontas' relationships with Smith and Rolfe. She marries Rolfe and goes to England. Just as she's ready to return, she dies of a European disease. It’s a story of survival.

The Indians remark how there’s more and more English arriving and it must be stopped, unaware how massive the European wave will be. The dramatic tension comes less from the screenplay than from inside the viewers, who see in the film an historical past that doesn’t seem inevitable—yet we know that the annihilation of the Indians (just by disease alone) is an inevitable result of European colonization.

Malick’s cinematic method puts his viewers into a longer, more carefully constructed relationship with his film’s characters than we’re used to. It’s a more difficult way to go and, given a choice, most moviegoers prefer less rigorous demands on their attention.

It’s nearly miraculous that a Terrence Malick is able to produce any films. But then again, someone must care more about the cinematic arts than about losing a large investment.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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John Reynolds June 13, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Nice analysis on why these films are worth seeing. As a general rule, the value of a film is inversely proportional to its cost and the number of people they expect to watch it. Most movies today stink. I started watching old W.C. Fields films on U-Tube.
Ned Bulmash June 13, 2012 at 05:26 PM
I saw The Thin Red Line. I too was befuddled by the appearances of George Clooney and John Travolta. However , I am am open to a different kind of perspective that Malick provides. I love his beautiful cinematography; Days of Heaven, Thin Red Line, Badlands.
Robert Castle June 13, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Thanks for commenting John. I tend to agree with your "inverse proportion" quality rule regarding movies. The seed for a future piece comes from this: Great high budget films. Where is the cutoff point? $60 million to make a movie today is peanuts.


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