‘Early Malick’ offers low light, high vision

By | July 11th, 2011 | 3 Comments
Sheen and Spacek in 'Badlands'

Malick's first film, Badlands, was Martin Sheen's big-screen debut.

When heading into a Terrence Malick film, expect to leave with more questions than answers. I know several popped into my mind when I recently caught the veteran director’s latest movie, The Tree of Life, at the Regal in South Beach: What were those 10 people thinking when they walked out of the movie? What had they expected when they came in? How much does the presence of Brad Pitt affect expectations of a film like The Tree of Life?

I won’t get the answers to those questions. As to another — Is Malick one of most creative, dynamic, and original directors to have worked for Hollywood? — that questions gets a clear answer in The Tree of Life: Yes, he is.

Only a philosopher-turned-filmmaker could leave a viewer with the feeling that humanity is nothing, merely a bubble bursting on the surface of mud, while also implying that each one of us is as grand as the universe itself. With imagery comparable in abstraction to the stargate sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life melds images of mundane life in 1950s suburbia with glimpses of a prehistoric earth, as a mother tries to express her loss of a young son during a hushed voiceover. Cycling through images of the evolution of the world, Malick gives equal measure to a beached dinosaur as to the brewing of soap in the kitchen sink. It’s a cinematic symphony of sound and vision rarely experienced in today’s multiplexes.

As Malick has grown more abstract in his later years, it might be a good time to catch up with the director’s early work at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in the next edition of MBC’s Great Directors Series, starting on Thursday.

Badlands (1973)

One of the most visually luscious road trip films of the ‘70s, Badlands was Malick’s first feature film, and probably his most accessible, as well as Martin Sheen’s big-screen debut. Opening the film with shots of the suburbs, pregnant with possibility, Malick immediately impresses with a unique cinematic vision. The film establishes the director’s eye for incredible skyline shots and a world in nearly constant twilight. Composer George Tipton augments the story — based on true accounts of a 25-year-old psychopath (Sheen) on the run with his 15-year-old lover (Sissy Spacek) — with a quirky soundtrack of choral voices, bells, and marimbas. Defying the longtime Hollywood code that every evildoer should get his comeuppance by the end titles, Badlands ends on a note of disturbing nihilism.

Badlands is screening one time only at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Thursday, July 14, at 8 p.m.

Days of Heaven (1978)

In this film, Malick’s follow-up to Badlands, murder again drenches the plot. Sketchy steelworker Bill (Richard Gere) flees Chicago at the start of the Great Depression with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and a tagalong kid (Linda Manz), who narrates the story in an odd and naïve way. While working the wheat fields of a sprawling Texas farm, Bill and Abby’s relationship collides with a young, wealthy landowner (Sam Shepard), who has his eyes on Abby and is allegedly near death.

'Days of Heaven' still

A visionary who dared to shoot in low light, Malick one-ups the breathtaking landscape shots of Badlands in Days of Heaven, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. At the same time, Malick’s storytelling through editing also shows him to be more skilled and confident in his second picture, a director who is more existentialist storyteller than mere camera operator.

Days of Heaven is screening one time only at the Miami Beach Cinematheque from Thursday, July 21, to Saturday, July 23.


After Days of Heaven, it would be another 20 years before the World War II film The Thin Red Line would remind cinephiles that the reclusive Malick was still alive. Then, in 2005, Malick released The New World, which explored the tale of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. Next came The Tree of Life.

Malick’s later films did not become hits for the big name studios that released them, and Tree of Life probably won’t change the trend. But a filmmaker like Malick, who explores the possibility of message beyond language, should expect as much for his refusal to compromise.

Hans Morgenstern maintains a blog on independent film and music called The Independent Ethos. He’s freelanced for several music publications for 20 years and worked in programming at local film festivals.

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