Looking Up: The Films of Terrence Malick

If God does speak to us, what does he say? More importantly, how do we listen and respond? These are not easy questions, but it’s something that has been on the mind of filmmaker Terrence Malick for a long time.

Malick was already wrestling with themes such as the nature of existence, loneliness and finding God in silence with his early films “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.” Then, he dropped off the directorial map for 20 years (Michael Nordine wrote a tremendous article about those missing years that should be required reading for film buffs).

When Malick re-emerged from obscurity with the peerless war film “The Thin Red Line” in 1998, movie fans and critics learned a few things. With the rise of the contemporary blockbuster and the leave-your-brain-at-the-door thrills of the likes of “Godzilla,” “Armageddon” and Deep Impact,” a voice like Malick’s—honest, sincere, challenging – was sorely missed in American Cinema. Also, filmgoers realized that Malick had not been content to rest on his laurels during his absence. If anything, those years away had only sharpened his theological and philosophical convictions, as well as his impeccable filmmaking craft.

“The Thin Red Line,” loosely based upon the novel by James Jones, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won none. The film was sadly overshadowed in popularity and prestige by “Saving Private Ryan,” Steven Spielberg’s excellent-yet-inferior WWII Oscar winner. That film went on to win Spielberg his second Best Director statue. Both war films lost the Best Picture race to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love” in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. How two of the greatest war pictures of all time could lose to an admittedly great yet ultimately inconsequential film like “Shakespeare” remains an enigma, but one gets the feeling that Academy voters and critics respected “The Thin Red Line” more than enjoyed it. It seemed as though the world wasn’t quite ready for Terrence Malick’s return. In some ways, they never would be.

In some circles, the director’s films have become parodies of themselves, reaching peak levels of art-house pretentiousness, bloated length and, some might argue, preachy themes. While watching “The Thin Red Line” today, it may be easy to recognize some of these tropes, but it’s tough to argue against the idea that the film is one of the finest, most deeply impactful depictions of war ever committed to celluloid.

The film follows multiple soldiers and top brass as they attempt to push back Japanese forces during the Battle of Mount Austen, part of the Guadalcanal Campaign during WWII. It seems as though a who’s who of venerable actors were chomping at the bit to be included in a Malick film, including John Travolta, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and Nick Nolte. But the primary focus is on Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), whose narration occurs in quite voice-over, a signature Malick technique. Witt converses with God about the meaning of war, faith, nature, and the motivation to carry on. His philosophical foil is Sean Penn’s 1st Sargent Welsh, who steadfastly denies the existence of God at every turn.

These two characters represent the philosophical dualism that Malick’s films exude. There are often two, conflicted ways to go living through this world, whether its war vs. peace, human nature vs. God’s providence or doubt vs. certainty.

“What is this war within nature?” Witt asks in the opening lines of the film. This war is not only the physical one fought by the soldiers, but the one that is fought within the souls of men. Darkness and light are constantly at war with one another. The darkness is readily apparent in the film’s bloody and realistic battle sequences. The soldiers handle the darkness in different ways. Witt handles it with hope; he always looks up, and he prays “in you I place my trust” to God during a striking candlelit scene. Welsh stays away from such pretensions, proclaiming that “there ain’t no world but this one.”

One would not expect to find God on a battlefield, and Witt struggles with finding the light amidst the darkness. “This great evil—where did it come from?” he asks. “How did it steal into the world? What’s keeping us from reaching out, touching the glory?” But, where there is evil there is also love. Witt finds it in his experiences living AWOL with native islanders in the South Pacific that open and close the film. In these scenes, the chaos of war is but a distant nightmare. “Where does it come from?” Witt asks. “Who lit this flame in us?” Even during warfare, Malick’s lens focuses on the beauty amidst the destruction. The trees and grass sway gently, the river runs, and everything from frogs to crocodiles to insects live out their peaceful existence unaware of the manmade chaos swirling around them. Some might find Malick’s frequent nature shots over-indulgent or random, but they are anything but. Rather, they further reflect Malick’s idea that nature, both human and divine, are in a constant state of struggle.

Near the end of the film, Witt asks, “Darkness and light, are they the working of one mind?” It’s a question he has been wrestling with the entire film. His response is not so much an answer as a decision to give himself over to the light when he is killed in action. Another soldier speaks for his departed spirit in the closing scene, where the ocean waters as the soldiers leave the island represent a sort of baptism, a washing away of the blood and dirt as well as other, less visible stains. “Oh my soul, let me be in you now.”

The New World

Malick’s focus on the baptismal waters and the purifying powers of nature in general received a more intense focus in his next film, “The New World.” The historical drama follows the familiar (and unfortunately Disney-fied) story of the founding of the Jamestown settlement and the complicated romance between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the young Native American Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher).

The film is almost prohibitively beautiful, as the camera sweeps across the vast American landscape, showing both the possibility and the danger of a land of great promise. Emmanual Lubezki’s sensuous cinematography captures the beauty of nature through long shots, letting the natural sound of the environment speak for itself. Like in “Thin Red Line,” God is everywhere here: in trees, grass, water and earth, there is a spirit that guides the actions of the characters. “Mother,” Pocahontas asks, “where do you live—in the sky, the clouds, the sea? Show me your face.”  The film’s presentation of spirituality derives not only from English Christianity but also traditional Native American spiritual practices.

Despite appearances, Malick can’t be accused of pantheism here. God and nature are not one in the same. Rather, all of nature is infused with the spirit. Theologian N.T. Wright calls this an “overlapping” view: heaven and earth are not completely distinct, nor are they one and the same. Rather, they occasionally overlap in distinct but often quiet ways. In “The New World,” God’s voice is often a quiet, gentle guide. “Who are you whom I so faintly hear?” John Smith asks near the beginning of the film. “What voice is this that speak within me, guides me toward the best?”

The film is a series of births and re-births. There’s the initial attempt at colonization, Smith’s initiation into Pocahontas’ tribe, Smith’s (fake) drowning and Pocahontas’ Christian baptism as “Rebecca,” among others. The film opens and closes to the sounds and images of a rushing river, and we see that the waters of baptism renew the spirit as well as the body. We see this in Captain Newport’s (Christopher Plummer) speech on colonizing the New World. “God has given us a promised land, a great inheritance, a new kingdom of the spirit. We shall make a new start. A new beginning.”

But God is found much more in Pocahontas’ encounters with Mother Nature than in the New Englanders’ Christianity. Malick doesn’t shy away from the role religion played in the settlers’ sometimes-barbaric treatment of the natives. When “Rebecca” is taken as the Americas’ ambassador to London to meet the Queen, we see little of her God in the bustling city streets and ornate constructed cathedrals. She agrees to stay in England and marry the handsome John Rolfe (Christian Bale), but we see her heart truly lies back in America, with the God of her people. She is only truly free again at the end of the film; after she has died, she frolics through the trees and lifts her hands up to the sky. “What is from you, and what is not?” she asks. In this case, the answer is easy.

The Tree of Life

Malick’s next film is considered by many to be his most personal film, as well as his masterpiece. Others, however, consider it a load of pseudo-spiritual hogwash: overlong, deliberately obtuse and unnecessarily ponderous. When the film was released, theaters had to put up signs telling paying moviegoers that they could not have their money back.

Certainly, “The Tree of Life” is a perfect distillation of everything people love and hate about Terrence Malick. The film is, once again, impossibly beautiful (Lubezki again), but it can be difficult to connect images of canyons, dinosaurs and the creation and destruction of the universe with the primary story being told (which is, of course, the point). The “story,” as much as it can be called one, concerns Jack O’Brien (played as an adult by Sean Penn) growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s (Malick himself grew up there). His family’s life is thrown into turmoil when his oldest brother dies. He is forced to come to terms with Malick’s clearest example of dualism, the way of nature vs. the way of grace. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) represents the way of grace, while Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) represents the way of nature. “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace,” Mrs. O’Brien narrates at the beginning of the film. “You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

The concept of choice is always a major theme with Malick. Specifically, the ability to choose hope over despair. Mrs. O’Brien represents hope in the midst of tragedy, while Mr. O’Brien represents the more “natural” response. But hope, in Malick’s eyes, is a dichotomy: it is an impossible and yet natural response. His characters always look to the sky, reaching toward something. They choose hope, and at the same time can’t help but look up. Hope is a physical as well as an emotional response. But some, such as Mr. O’Brien, continue in the ways of “nature:” they often find themselves in those age-old pitfalls: legalism and certainty (mostly in God’s non-existence). Malick’s heroes are never certain God is there (that’s why they ask so many questions), but their natural response is to look up nonetheless. The trick in “The Tree of Life” is that grace is actually the natural response: it is “nature” itself that has been corrupted.

To The Wonder

In case the title is no indication, Malick’s latest film, “To the Wonder,” is in many ways his most overtly theological. It’s also his most sensual, exploring the “holy mystery” of marriage between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina, a woman he meets in France (Olga Kurylenko). The film portrays the emotional ups-and-downs as well as the challenge of staying faithful (neither of them do). This “holy mystery” we call love and marriage is, once again, both spiritual and physical. “I feel so close I could almost touch you,” Marina narrates in French. “There is always this invisible something that I feel so strongly which ties us so tightly together. I love this feeling, even if it makes me cry sometimes.”

In the midst of this story is also one of a priest, Father Quintana, (“serial killer” Javier Bardem, in a particularly odd but inspired casting choice), who struggles with his own doubt and narrates a good portion of the film in Spanish. Here, Malick uses multiple languages to show that love is a universal and visual language. He celebrates multiculturalism while not dwelling on it.

The film is predictably gorgeous, but Malick turns his eye from expansive vistas (thought there are some) to the dilapidated crack houses and storm drains of Oklahoma. God is no less present here than he is in Pocahontas’ native lands. But he can be harder to hear. This is particularly true amidst the mundane images and bombast of American culture: the carnival, the rodeo, Sonic drive-thru and the supermarket. Marina finds herself alone as a housewife struggling with domesticity and ennui. Like Pocahontas, she seems to long for somewhere else. When she returns to France for a time, she doesn’t find what she’s looking for. She seems to be waiting for something intangible.

Malick’s films are often about waiting in quiet expectation—for love, redemption or change. Often, we don’t get what we long for, but Malick sees value in the waiting. And yet, refusal to act is the greatest sin in Malick’s universe. “Jesus insists on choice,” Father Quintana says in a sermon. “The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth; with him, he can do nothing.” This goes back to the greatest of all choices: the choice to either believe in or reject Christ as savior. Sometimes we must wait, but the ultimate choice is one we must all act upon, whether we want to or not.

Our conflicting human nature can be seen even in our romantic relationships. Marina speaks of “two women. One full of love for you. The other pulls me down towards the earth.” She is pulled to commit adultery, but her higher nature admits her indiscretion to Neil (the result is not pleasant). The way of “nature” is one that pulls us down, and we bring others down with us. Another word for it might be “sin.” It is something that must be actively fought against, for our nature does us more harm than good. But again, grace can also be natural, and, in the context of a marriage, a necessity.

Finding Grace in the Questions

Throughout his filmmaking career, Terrence Malick has always asked the big questions while refusing to provide easy answers. Faith in God is never easy because life is never easy. Like anything that matters in life, you have to work at it. And work his characters do. The only stagnant characters are the ones who are certain God doesn’t exist. In Malick’s eyes, faith in God may provide more questions than answers. But those questions are always, eminently, worth asking. They keep us strong and active. They pull us up toward heaven and away from the way of “nature.” They keep us looking up.

I want to end with Father Quintana’s prayer at the end of “To the Wonder,” one of the most magnificent prayers ever committed to film. “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart. Thirsting, we thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.”

Yes, this is the prayer of a doubter and a seeker. No bitterness toward God, no anger. Simply a desire to be closer to the light. If ever there was a way for the medium of film itself to help us see that light a bit more clearly, Terrence Malick has found it. Growing closer to God is a matter of inches at a time, not miles. Life is often unbearably hard. But we have to keep looking up.