The movie industry cares only about money, not art. Right? Yet Terrence Malick’s four-decade-long career demonstrates how much money and talent film folk will lavish on an occasional prodigy.
The exquisite middle section of the 67-year-old director’s new movie, The Tree of Life, an autobiographical memoir of his adolescence in 1950s Waco, Texas, finally fulfills the hopes Hollywood has invested in Malick since his memorable 1973 debut, Badlands, featuring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a thrill-kill couple.
Malick is a Red State Coleridge, a philosopher-poet of the oil patch. He is the son of an Illinois small-town girl and a Chaldean Christian petroleum geologist (thus, the titular reference to the Garden of Eden). He grew up in Texas and Oklahoma working on farms and oilfields in the summer and playing high-school football in the fall. Malick developed a rapturous love of nature, what Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life calls an awareness of “the glory all around.” Malick graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a philosophy degree. In 1969, Northwestern University Press published his translation of Martin Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons.
In other words, Malick is just all-around better than most people. Industry types have always treated him as a genius, despite his meager box-office track record.
After Badlands, Malick delivered one of the prettiest (if dullest) films ever, Days of Heaven (1978). Malick’s ineffable imagery embodied Heidegger’s idea of “illumined, radiant self-manifestation” better than perhaps Heidegger deserved.
Malick then disappeared for a couple of decades, but the money men eventually tracked him down. Celebrities volunteered in droves to play bit parts in his 1998 Guadalcanal war movie The Thin Red Line. Malick deleted most of the star turns and action, delivering 170 minutes of the breeze blowing through exquisitely backlit tall grass while voiceovers ponder the meaning of life. The Academy still gave it Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations.
The New World, a 2005 retelling of the Pocahontas legend that kept getting distracted by wildlife documentary footage, was somewhat less reverently received.