Rogue of the Week: Terrence Malick

Thursday, 26 May 2011 16:29 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue of the Week: Terrence Malick

At the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival – the biggest film festival on the face of planet Earth – The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or, the highest honor any film can receive at the festival.  Guess who was not present to bask in accolades and congratulations for the opus starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn?  The film's legendary writer-director, Terrence Malick.  Malick's near-mythic status derives from the fact that he makes masterfully meditative, intelligent dramas, and also his tendency towards the reclusive.  It's both of these attributes that make him the Rogue of the Week.  Mostly the incredible filmmaking though.

I'm no Robert Evans, but it's pretty much common knowledge that in the business of show, self-promotion is an indispensable tool.  When a film is nearing release, most directors spend hours at a time in interview after interview, reciting the same responses to nearly identical questions.  They do this for weeks or even months, depending on the size of the film they're promoting.  Not Malick.  You'd be more likely to run into the Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar at a Pizza Hut in Kuna, Idaho than to see him on E!.

Very few interviews with the auteur actually exist, owing to his reluctance to engage with the media component of the film industry.  Though The Tree of Life was the single most anticipated screening at Cannes, Malick declined to appear on the red carpet, at the press conference, or at the aforementioned closing ceremony, which his producers chalked up to his notorious shyness.  He did, however, appear very briefly before the film itself, giving his presence on the Croisette a certain Bigfoot quality, with reports that he was indeed present, but consistently elusive.  Much like his movies.

Obviously, just being a private guy doesn't merit an honor as auspicious as the Rogue of the Week, otherwise several weirdos in my building would have earned the title.  Not just a mysterious figure, Malick is a flat-out amazing storyteller.  His films are paced deliberately, which many folks might reductively dismiss as "slow."  In an era where frantic editing and mutli-tasking attention spans are best measured in nanoseconds, Malick's pacing alone is something of a defiant.  Most of films are shot in actual locations, usually in less-then-convenient locations, as a dominant theme in his work has been man's complex relationship with nature.

Malick's first feature film was 1973's Badlands, which was a thinly fictionalized version of a series of murders in 1959.  Rather than sensationalizing the story of  25 year-old who kills his 15 year-old would-be girlfriend's father, though, Malick focuses on their subsequent attempts to live essentially as naturalists.  Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek give pitch-perfect performances, and Malick's film views them both with empathy, subtly exploring his stupidity and her naivete.  It's also stunningly beautiful, with the sort of indelible images that would become customary in all his films.

Five years later, his second feature, Days of Heaven, followed another couple, this time a poor industrial worker and his lover, played by Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, in the early days of the 20th Century.  When a sudden act of violence changes their lives, they flee to Texas, where Gere's Bill persuades his love to marry rich landowner Sam Shepard in the belief that he'll soon die.  Of course, it doesn't work out quite as planned.  The film, which spent two years in post-production, explores violence, jealousy, love, nature.  Though it won an Oscar for cinematography and was widely praised, some critics took issue with its almost ethereal elusiveness, which is standard in Malick's work.

After Days of Heaven, Malick went silent for two solid decades.  In an industry seemingly predicated upon heat and buzz, his willingness to simply disappear is fairly astonishing.  In 1999, he returned with The Thin Red Line, an ensemble WWII drama that had the misfortune of being released the very same year as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a more accessible and viscerally shocking war film.  Nonetheless, The Thin Red Line is a strong example of Malick's prowess as a director, and his eagerness to digress and explore unexpected facets of his story.

Next up was The New World, which cast Colin Farrell as John Smith and Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas.  The film attempts to portray Pocahontas' relationship with the European settlers with a depth that the tale's familiarity has diluted over so many retellings.  Like all Malick's work, it's deliberate and leaves its most important points implicit.  Its length and perceived plotlessness wearied many moviegoers, but its a singular, Malickian work well worth your time.

And here we are at The Tree of Life, a rare new picture from Terrence Malick.  It hits theaters this weekend, so prepare yourself.  Not only that, but in a unprecedented move, Malick has already completed filming on his next, currently untitled film, which stars Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Jessica Chastain, and Javier Bardem.  That one is currently scheduled for 2012, and if Malick doesn't spend years editing, then it would mark the first ever instance of consecutive annual releases for Malick.  Just goes to show: you never know what to expect from a proper rogue.

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