Each of Malick’s films presents a conversation or debate between what he suggests is the dominant Western worldview and a competing perspective. Malick follows Heidegger in identifying the Western worldview with the Enlightenment drive to systematize and conquer nature. According to this point of view, man demonstrates his significance through technical and scientific mastery—and on an individual level, he falls into insignificance when he fails to win the acclaim of other men. The competing perspective in Malick’s films is the artistic or filmic perspective, of which the paragon example is Malick’s camera itself. Malick’s goal as a filmmaker is to educate the human eye to see like his camera does. If our habits of vision are characterized by ambition, skepticism and greed, Malick inspires us with the virtues of patience, appreciation and awe. He offers not new facts or arguments but persuasive images of the world as if filtered through such virtues. Alongside these images he presents a character in each film who expresses, with increasing confidence and dignity, the point of view epitomized by the camera. These characters conceive of a power or location they can only gesture toward with words: “Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, but this never happened,” says Holly in Badlands. “I’ve seen another world—sometimes I think it was just my imagination,” says Witt in The Thin Red Line.
The characters in Malick’s first film, Badlands, express the consequences of the Western worldview in mid-twentieth-century America, the latest historical moment depicted in his oeuvre. The most conspicuous product of this worldview is the peon to “personality” called Kit (Martin Sheen), a soon-to-be laid off garbageman in the suburban town of Fort Dupree, South Dakota. Talkative, aggressive and brimming with clichés like “I’ll try anything once,” Kit deploys a medley of popular mid-century poses to mask feelings of shame and frustration. His act works on the 15 year old Holly (Sissy Spacek), who thinks he looks “just like James Dean.” Holly’s appreciation is echoed by the policemen who arrest Kit after he kills Holly’s father and convinces her to accompany him on a journey punctuated by at least two more clumsy murders. One of the cops compares Kit to Dean while another congratulates him on being “quite an individual.” The whole film is a meditation on the emptiness of a perspective from which Kit looks like “quite an individual.” This is the perspective of nearly all the characters in the film, but not, importantly, of the film itself. In contrast to the typically charismatic outlaw, Kit never fascinates the viewer of Badlands as much as he does the film’s secondary characters. Malick said Kit’s character was meant to combat the prevailing cultural “myth that suffering makes you deep.”
Holly eventually tires of Kit’s increasingly sensational behavior (“he dreaded the idea of being shot down alone … without a girl to scream out his name”) and leaves him in an oil field. But Holly’s role is not primarily to expose Kit. Through her fanciful voiceovers, often accompanying a quixotic visual imagery alive to rolling stretches of sky, road and trees, she alerts the viewer to a way of seeing that transcends Kit and his vaunted personality altogether. At times Badlands has the feel of a children’s story or fairy tale; Malick has said his biggest influence while writing it was Nancy Drew. “The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return,” Holly reflects, “I thought of what a fine place it was.” And then: “Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land.” Holly and Kit build a treehouse in the woods and dance to Nat King Cole under the stars. The thought occurs to the viewer that Holly is already in her magical land, if only she could see it. But she would have to see it from our perspective—the perspective of Malick’s camera.
Every Malick film gestures toward a seemingly “magical” location which is really an attitude, mood or perspective. In Malick’s second film, Days of Heaven (1978), the central story or “plot”—an ill-fated love triangle set on an early twentieth-century farm—is juxtaposed with a luminous imagery of ripening wheat, rushing water, the human laborer silhouetted against the sky at dawn. The camera’s impassive gaze is reflected in the vulnerable eyes of the film’s narrator—like Holly, an adolescent girl—this time named Linda (Linda Manz). The action is propelled by Bill (Richard Gere), who flees from his job at a steel plant in Chicago to a migrant farm in the Texas panhandle. Accompanied by Linda and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), he concocts a plan for Abby to marry the rich and—Bill believes—terminally ill farm-owner (Sam Shephard). The farmer does not die and Abby falls quietly in love with him. Posing as Abby’s brother, Bill moves into the farmer’s mansion, then flees in despair, eventually returning and killing the farmer in self-defense. He tells Abby, “I didn’t know what I had with you.”
The most conspicuous fact about Linda is that she plays absolutely no role in the plot of Heaven. The other characters never consult her and, like Holly, she demonstrates little capacity for steering events to her advantage. Indeed, she seems immune to the mechanisms which move plots forward: chronology, causality, gain and loss. What befalls the characters in Heaven illustrates for Linda not a constellation of results tied to specific decisions but rather a vague and immutable restlessness (“for a long time we been doin’ things, goin’ places”). Where we expect analysis of the unfolding drama, Linda offers, in her ungrammatical prose, alternative forms of knowledge grounded in intuition and vision: “I think the devil was on the farm … just sittin’ there laughin’”; “The sun looks ghostly when there’s a mist on the river and everything’s quiet. I never knowed it before.” Unlike Bill, Abby or the farmer, Linda’s worldview cannot be described in terms of what she owns or wants. Her desires are eccentric, fleeting, almost literally incomprehensible (“I could be a mud docta’, checkin’ out the earth”). Yet the things she observes are finally less fanciful or obscure than the “realistic” perceptions of the film’s other protagonists. After all, the devil was on that farm—you had to be blind not to see him.
Linda’s youth and the rawness of her impressions can cause her to appear fragile—as viewers, we worry she will be jaded or ruined by the errors of the adults around her. Ultimately, though, she demonstrates a durability that eludes the other characters, caught up as they are in webs of aspiration and striving. Abandoned at the end of the film in a boarding school in a small western town, she looks with her characteristic blend of wonder and wisdom at the girls being taught etiquette and dance in a room full of mirrors. She is not against modern civilization, but neither will she be confined by it. At night, she climbs down from her bedroom window on a rope made of sheets and reunites with an acquaintance from the farm. The two of them sprint over the town’s manicured lawns and gravel roads to the railroad. They wait for a boy until dawn, then give up and wander down the tracks. Linda’s voiceover concludes the film:
This girl, she didn’t know where she was goin’ or what she was goin’ to do. She didn’t have no money or nothin’ … I was hopin’ things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.
The poignancy of these last lines derives from the fact that Linda could just as easily be speaking about herself. But Linda almost never speaks about herself. In fact, her “weak” sense of self is precisely the quality that grants her such bracing access to a world the rest of the characters only occasionally perceive but which is inscribed by Malick as a critical—perhaps the critical—element in the story he has to tell.
In most films, the setting or background of each framed scene augments the main action, which involves a plot or story concerning human beings. One aspect of the perspective implied by such a construction bears on the centrality of human beings—and especially of certain human beings: the ones we call the stars—in relation to their environment or setting. Beginning with Heaven, Malick presents human action as if it were indistinct from its setting. Frequently his camera enters in the middle of conversations between characters; the “story” is interrupted by mysterious strangers or the taking flight of birds; crucial plot developments are elided for features of landscape or light. Commentators have tended to describe the non-narrative aspects of Malick’s art in familiar ways—as metaphors for inner states or the conflicts between his characters. But one senses in his films an imagery that resists being reduced to metaphor; it is through this imagery that Malick introduces us to a variety of significance that exists independent of man’s ability to discern or even to destroy it.
The world is significant in Malick’s films, and so are individuals insofar as they recognize the nature of their place in it. Bill, like Kit, is motivated by a desire to be significant in the traditional Western way, which means he acknowledges only the world of other men—the world where significance is measured by prosperity and fame. He tells the farmer: “One day you wake up, find you’re not the smartest guy in the world, never gonna come up with the big score.” Heaven seems, early on, to ask whether Bill should risk his relationship with Abby. It turns out Malick is not interested in whether he should do it. He is interested in the worldview that makes Bill’s decision inevitable. His aim is not to solve Bill’s dilemma but to move the viewer beyond it.
The twenty year hiatus in Malick’s career between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line (1998) is often construed as a period of creative drought or a failure of competence. In retrospect, Malick’s period of obscurity may have allowed him to think through the implications of his first two films, including the implications of their success. Malick had directed two films that were critical of modern Western culture, yet these films had been consumed by that culture and even revered by it. Malick was known especially as a poetic or beautiful filmmaker, one who had set a new aesthetic standard for the medium. This was recognized primarily as a product of technical mastery. It became common knowledge that several scenes in Heaven had been shot with Super Panavision lenses at the time of day known as “magic hour.”
Less attention was paid to the implications of Malick’s art for a culture which fetishized technical expertise, including the technical expertise required to produce beauty in film. The problem encompasses much more than the tendencies of cinema critics. The viewer of the Terrence Malick film—most likely an educated citizen of a technologically advanced society—is in every case confronted by the challenge of doing justice to her experience. Malick’s films are rightly esteemed for their composition, but they also compel consideration of what kind of response might move beyond a merely aesthetic appreciation. In each of Malick’s last two films, the viewer follows a man who believes he has seen “another world” as he goes back to his familiar one. This other world is distinguished above all by a sensuous or poetic appeal not dissimilar from that of a persuasive work of art. The situation of Malick’s protagonists is comparable to that of the contemporary moviegoer who forgets his life for two hours or has it, in rare cases, transformed.
Based on James Jones’s novel about the battle of Guadalcanal during World War II, Thin Red Line opens with two scenes that do not appear in the book. These two scenes make explicit a series of themes already at work in the earlier films and frame the entire second half of Malick’s career. The first is a poetic sequence depicting the AWOL Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) intermingling with a community of Melanesian islanders on the shoreline of a beach. Scene two opens with Sergeant “Top” Welsh (Sean Penn) disciplining Witt in the hold of the navy ship that has apprehended him on its way to Guadalcanal. Malick shoots the discussion in a series of close-ups alternating Witt’s wide-open blue eyes with Welsh’s characteristic squint; the background is near total darkness accompanied by an ominous mechanical hum. Witt takes his demotion to stretcher-bearer personally, responding that he is “twice the man” Welsh is. Welsh disputes not the insult but its premise:
Welsh: In this world a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.
Witt: You’re wrong there Top. I’ve seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.
Welsh: Well, then you seen things I never will.We’re livin’ in a world that’s blowin’ itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it. In a situation like that all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him. Look out for himself.
The dialogue conjoins a metaphysical question with an artistic and especially a filmic one. Welsh and Witt seem to be talking about the possibility of other worlds, but it is characteristic of Welsh that he turns quickly to the operative facts in this one. Witt does not dispute Welsh’s claim about the “situation” and he offers no new facts. The question is how one should see the facts.
Welsh believes the facts compel a man to be “an island.” This means he treats what surrounds him as contingent and meaningless; that a war as monstrous as World War II could even take place speaks for such a man to the absurdity of all individual human action. In the novel, Jones recounts how “everything amused Welsh … politics amused him, religion amused him, particularly ideals and integrity amused him … most of all human virtue amused him.” Like Kit and Bill, Welsh is responding to a common modern problem or feeling of insignificance. But, given the circumstances of total war, the idea of becoming “quite an individual” seems quaint, even absurd. Welsh’s courage is to live with the lonely knowledge that there is no meaning outside the individual, and that the individual means less and less. The film draws out the consequences of his attitude in a corrosive solipsism. As a response to a feeling of insignificance, the strategy amounts to collusion.
Witt questions whether the world proscribed by the war is the only world. He says he has seen “another world.” The other world is never claimed to be the world of the islanders, although some commentators have claimed this to be the case, especially when criticizing Malick for “idealizing” native or primitive populations.1 Witt’s intuition is not based on an anthropological accounting of Melanesian culture. His revelation is not that the islanders live perfectly, but that their way of life expresses possibilities open to himself. A Melanesian mother reminds him of his own mother, and, returning later to the beach, Witt wonders how the “human family” could have been severed and scattered into opposing factions. The war becomes for Witt, as the farm in Heaven for Linda, an occasion or setting for broader questions about good and evil, the particular and the universal. Witt’s experience is analogous to that of Malick’s viewer, who finds a familiar subject (war) framed by unfamiliar questions and possibilities (“Does our ruin benefit the earth?” “Why does nature vie with itself?”).
If the modern viewer is inclined toward Welsh’s perspective at the beginning of the film, Malick’s art works to wrench her out of it. The “island” of interest in Thin Red Line is not Welsh’s closed-off individual subject, nor the Melanesians’ idyllic beachhead, but Guadalcanal—and by extension the whole natural world, encompassing every individual and every war. Personal attachments and alliances wither, including Private Bell’s (Ben Chaplin) marriage and the relationships, so often sentimentalized in war films, between soldiers. That the war serves no purpose other than to advance the careers of politicians and generals is taken as obvious and even absurdly obvious. But Malick establishes the political and social meaninglessness of the war only to invest it with a meaning which transcends politics and social life. Witt’s “other world” expresses itself in ripples on the surfaces of rivers, the wind that bows the battleground’s tall grass, the timeless gaze of the owl standing watch over Witt’s execution in an open field. As in Malick’s earlier films, the setting is invested with a significance accessible from certain perspectives but not others. The camera approximates the perspective of the man who asks the right questions.2 The extent to which these questions have been ignored is demonstrated by the war itself.
Witt asks questions in his voiceovers; more importantly, he does so with his eyes. In their excellent article on Thin Red Line, the critics Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit identify Witt’s haunting “gaze” as the ideal for Malick’s cinematic ethic. When Seargent Keck (Woody Harrelson) dies slowly from a self-inflicted grenade wound in a bunker (what he calls a “fuckin’ recruit trick”), Witt’s inquisitive look can appear passionless, especially when compared with the terrified glances of his fellow soldiers. In fact, Malick does want us to see how our personal passion can impede genuine sympathy. Witt’s impersonal affect infects Keck and emanates out toward the viewer: “You’re gonna be alright. Even if you die, you didn’t let your brother down.” The relaxation of Witt’s features prompts the relaxation of our own; we forget for a moment the implications of the soldier’s death for ourselves (our own death) and become witnesses instead. The whole episode reinforces one of the primary lessons of the film, for we had already forgotten that Keck had thrown himself on his grenade to protect his “brothers.” The same event may be seen as an error or an occurrence natural and noble. Also images, words and metaphors like “brother” and “family” can be lies at the same time as they pave the way to some larger truth. There may exist a perspective from which even death is a thing of beauty, the expression of some larger “glory.” This perspective may be Witt’s, and it may also be that of Malick’s films.
The Thin Red Line’s greatest gift is ultimately to address—literally, to look at—the viewer the way that Witt looks at Welsh: with compassion and hope. In their last conversation, Witt asks Welsh if he ever gets lonely. “Only around people,” Welsh says, in a fashionable variant of the Sartrean, “Hell is other people.” Witt mocks the quip, as the whole film mocks it. But the man who says it is not a figure of mockery: the man who says it is the stand-in for the viewer of the film. Witt tells him, “I still see a spark in you.”
Reviews of Thin Red Line tended to be perplexed but generous, and the film has enjoyed a rich afterlife amongst professors of philosophy. Conversely Malick’s fourth film, The New World (2005), generated mostly condescending reviews and has found few significant defenders. Critics have treated Malick’s visually stunning but seemingly naïve recasting of the John Smith/Pocahontas love story as a nebulous hymn to nature and human innocence, a “transcendentalist visual symphony” (Kent Jones) in which “beauty … transcends history” (Amy Taubin) and the point is that “to the innocent eye … every world is new” (Anthony Lane). Indeed, New World can appear on first viewing to be sentimental or silly. Smith’s voiceovers, delivered by a brooding Colin Farrell, seem adolescent in nature (“Love: where does it come from?”). Pocahontas, played by Q’orianka Kilcher, seems a caricature of the alluring native innocent.
The film rewards a second and third viewing, a phenomenon characteristic of Malick’s art more generally. Aspects that initially feel trite begin to appear necessary, even inspired. Smith’s early sentimentality, for instance, is a fundamental aspect of his character that, in retrospect, the film only seems to endorse. Seeing New World a second time, we are simultaneously seduced and repelled by Smith’s Lockean vision of the American continent as a blank slate—presented poetically as he drifts down a gently winding river during an excursion in search of an Indian city:
Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true commonwealth: hard work and self-reliance our virtues. … Men shall not make each other their spoil.
The fantasy is earnest but, we later understand, characteristically abstract. Rather than appreciating the natural bounty before him, Smith imagines it as prelude to some future utopia. On his way to a real city that will challenge all his notions of a “true commonwealth,” he constructs a Platonic city-in-speech. Once in the Indian city, he inverts his judgment but not his perspective. Now the Indian civilization becomes the “true” one.
The film follows and indulges Smith’s romanticism; his captivity with the Indians is presented as a thirty minute prose-poem exceeding in length and emphasis the lyrical beginning of Thin Red Line. Smith and the Indian princess fall in love and frolic among the trees as Smith waxes poetic about the ways of the “naturals”: “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. … They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.” It is no argument against New World that American Indians may have been no less cruel and violent than any other people. As with the Melanesians in Thin Red Line, Malick presents primitive populations from a Western perspective, meaning they appear as idealized and alien—in the way the things we idealize are always alien. Smith sees the Indians as embodying all the values his own countrymen lack, yet finds himself powerless to integrate his experience when he returns to the colonists’ squalid fort. Likewise, he loves the princess without learning anything from her (it is symptomatic that she masters his language but he never attempts to know hers). Back with his countrymen, his captivity comes to seem like a “dream.” When he has a chance to reunite with the princess, he sacrifices it for a fantasy of fame as an explorer.
Smith’s idealism is the historical precursor to Welsh’s skepticism. Both share the compulsion to fit what is “here” into a holistic scheme—a map, an imagined future, a dogma concerning what is real and what false. Welsh concludes that all that is real is empty or ruined; Smith imagines a “real” world distinct from the one in front of him. The “new world” is never what he sees, but something just beyond it, which he is about to discover. Whereas Welsh denies the possibility of other worlds, Smith loses himself in them.
The competing perspective within the film is provided by the Indian princess, who assumes the Holly/Linda/Witt mantel. Described as “someone finished” after Smith leaves her alone in the fort—where she lives after being kidnapped by the colonists—the princess rises in the second act of New World from the ashes of personal and cultural trauma and forges a life with the Englishman John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Rechristened as “Rebecca,” she joins Rolfe on his tobacco farm, where they cultivate the land and begin a family. Rolfe actually embodies the virtues of hard work and self-reliance that were only words to Smith. The princess, meanwhile, fuses “natural” virtues (care for animals and the land, spontaneity) with Western ones (modesty, speech, industriousness). Baptized as a Christian, she reprises her pagan rituals by the window of her house. Her “adaptation” to Western life can be interpreted as tragic, or triumphant; Rolfe describes her as the one who “weaves all things together.∏
Summoned to England for an audience with the queen, the princess reunites briefly with Smith in Buckingham Gardens. Their final conversation is a sequel to Welsh’s and Witt’s, again conjoining a metaphysical question (this time about “truth”) with a filmic one regarding perspective. Of their time together in the woods Smith confesses that he “thought it was a dream,” yet it had turned out to be “the only truth.” The princess responds with a benign pity for Smith’s myopic vision, which contrasts so sharply with her own. For her, there are no dreams and no truth; the river and trees of the manicured English gardens have the same source as the wilderness where she and Smith had fallen in love. The task is not to choose between competing “realities” but to appreciate their common root. This is the visual ethic of Malick’s camera. Days of heaven and new worlds denote not times and places, but a way of seeing.
This way of seeing is ridiculed as sentimental and naïve within the films and often by critics of them. Indeed, Malick is often described even by his proponents as a romantic or idealistic filmmaker with a tragic conception of modern life. In his book-length study of Malick’s films, Lloyd Michaels posited New World’s romantic and tragic Smith as a stand-in for Malick and, more generally, the ambitious but inevitably disillusioned modern artist. The claim is itself symptomatic of the conventional conception of modern art as representing an intrinsically fanciful or romantic perspective. In fact, the naïve ones in Malick’s films are not the artistic sensibilities; they are the cynics and dreamers who remind us of ourselves. If we are encouraged to sympathize with Kit, Bill, Welsh and Smith, Malick ultimately suggests to us the limited horizon of their perspectives. Each is frustrated by his insignificance or driven by a desire to become significant in the Western sense. Consequently, each fails to see the world in the manner suggested by Malick’s art, instead embroiling himself in self-defeating projects supported by fantasies of entrapment or escape. (To recognize these as fantasies is one of the perspicuities nourished by Malick’s films.) Malick’s art is not idealistic but concrete; he shows us how to be here. When we understand him correctly, the princess emerges as his portrait of the artist. Art’s nature is to adapt to changing, even worsening, conditions. The proof of art’s optimism today is that it continues to exist.
Taken alone, any one of Malick’s films can seem quixotic, arbitrary or fanciful; together they constitute a ladder or ascent. From the height of New World Kit’s individualism appears even emptier than it did on first viewing, and we can identify in Linda’s versatile innocence an apprentice version of the Indian princess’s mute wisdom. New World represents the highest rung on Malick’s ladder even though it tells the most brutal story. The princess’s civilization is obliterated; the incipient America that replaces it is already deformed by the flaws whose consequences are made so conspicuous in the remainder of Malick’s oeuvre. But although the princess dies on the passage back to Jamestown, her child lives on. The narration indicates that the film itself is a message this child will take back with him to the colonies. That the child takes this message back implies that the artistic perspective is more familiar than foreign. The hope therefore is not so eccentric as it looks: the modern world still can be, as Holly says, “a fine place.”