“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”
Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.
I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.
I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?
Ed Howard: You’re right, prior to this conversation I had only seen Days of Heaven, so I came to the rest of these films as an agnostic, aware of the two opposing and equally forceful reactions to Malick’s work and ready to be either awed or let down. Instead, I find myself thinking that there is room between the two reactions, or rather that there’s room to flow between them, to go from being awed one moment to bored the next, to vacillate between thinking that Malick’s distinctive sensibility is either sublime or silly.
In that light, I think one major reason that Malick’s films are so divisive is that they’re so nakedly emotional, that he’s so blatantly aiming for the sublime. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism. I admire and love all of these films to one degree or another, even though I never quite reach the level of awed transcendence that so many seem to find in Malick’s work. I’m saying that Malick aims high, that his films are often not grounded in storytelling or character—instead, his films drift almost irresistibly toward the clouds, toward the treetops, toward the allegorical implications of the basic scenarios he explores. Sometimes that drift sacrifices the human element in his films, so that the characters and their human-scale stories seem to fade into the beautiful landscapes, overlaid with larger allegories about human society and history as a whole.
All of which suggests a grand sense of ambition. Days of Heaven has a very familiar love triangle at its core, but it seldom feels like that story is the point so much as the larger thematic currents about WWI-era America and social hierarchies. The Thin Red Line is packed with individual characters, but the film is really not about any one man as much as it is about their common humanity in the face of mortality and the evils of war. The New World isn’t just—or even primarily—a love story but an allegorical fable about the origins of America and a deeply spiritual examination of the dialectic of progress and stasis. The point is, Malick thinks big, juxtaposing the transience and smallness of individual human lives with history-spanning events like the growth of a tree, the slow and unstoppable churning of natural processes. Maybe that’s why large, ancient trees are so important to Malick’s most recent films: The Thin Red Line begins with a tree, The New World ends with one, and a tree will presumably be at the center of The Tree of Life. A large tree, growing slowly over decades or even centuries, its roots stretching out into the earth even as its branches spread through the sky, is a perfect metaphor for Malick’s expansive perspective on life and death, those big-picture subjects that constitute the heart of his work.
JB: That’s true. And of course on a very basic level Malick’s tree shots evoke not just his themes but his tendencies. Malick’s films are famous for—or, in some circles, notorious for—their frequent observations of environment, which in most cases means observations of the natural world. In determining why Malick’s films prove divisive, it’s safe to start there, because there aren’t too many better ways for a director to be written off as pretentiously artsy than to point a camera at flora and fauna and observe them as something beyond mere scenery.
Malick regards nature with fascination and romanticism, replacing the metaphorical textual descriptions of poets with vivid celluloid images. He’s unashamed about his reverence, capturing creatures and plant life with the kind of closeups usually reserved for the productions of National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. In Badlands, we are shown branches and leaves, a gasping catfish and a big black beetle. In Days of Heaven, we stare into the husks of the wheat harvest and the tiny jaws of the locusts that devour them. In The Thin Red Line we encounter crocodiles, birds, a snake and a butterfly, all amidst a forbidding jungle. In The New World, it’s chickens, cattle, rivers, forests, storms and blue sky. I could go on. Malick presents such images with a deliberateness that makes many viewers uncomfortable, perhaps because nature is the stuff of poetry and poetry is the stuff of emotion and vulnerability. American audiences are accustomed to ogling cars, guns and cityscapes, but not nature. Nature in most American films is the stage on which the action happens. In Malick’s films, nature is part of the action itself.
Of course, nature in Malick’s films often feels like an observer of the action, too. That’s what you were getting at in describing the way Malick juxtaposes “the transience and smallness of individual human lives” with “the slow and unstoppable churning of natural processes.” In Malick’s films, man chops down nature to make his home. He harvests it to make his fortune. He hides within it to protect his life. He reshapes it to please his own eye. But he never fully conquers it. Nature is too big and too powerful for that, and only nature seems to know it.
EH: Exactly. If Malick’s films have one big overarching theme that runs through all of them, it’s the folly and ultimate insignificance of human ambition, and that idea goes hand in hand with the director’s loving depiction of nature as a stoic force beyond human control. That idea is present, certainly, in his first film, Badlands, in which the aimless young outlaw Kit (Martin Sheen) goes on the run with his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) after killing her father (Warren Oates), the first of many crimes they’ll commit on their meandering trek across a Midwestern American wasteland. Badlands is, I think, the one Malick film where the scenery and the allegory don’t overwhelm and de-emphasize the characters, but even here nature plays a big part in the film’s examination of Kit and Holly’s pointless rebellion. When they first go on the run, they stop in a remote forest clearing and construct a makeshift tree fort as their home. They live primitively, playing like children in the woods. Kit runs through the trees with his rifle held in front of him like he’s doing military drills. Holly puts on black makeup, drawing lines around her eyes like war paint, an image that Malick captures in closeup. The couple dance to rock music (Mickey Baker’s “Love is Strange”) on the radio, their feet shuffling back and forth lazily in the dirt.
If ever a sequence epitomized Malick’s view of humanity’s relationship to nature, this is it: people construct their buildings and homes, they play their games, they kill one another, as Kit does when some bounty hunters find the couple, and then they depart, leaving behind some trinkets and ruins as the only sign of their presence. Kit and Holly’s tree fort is filled with paintings and mirrors and other little mementos they’d taken from Holly’s father’s house before burning it down, and these things are simply abandoned in the woods, abandoned to nature and rot. Nature doesn’t care, just as it doesn’t care later in the film when Kit, thinking of posterity, fills a time capsule with some of the couple’s discarded junk and buries it for future generations to find. It’s an acknowledgment of the fleeting presence of humanity in the world, leaving behind only trash and ruin.
Maybe that’s why Kit is so driven by the desire for celebrity and recognition. The duo—but mostly Kit, since Holly, as she admits herself, is a follower: “he says frog, I jump”—commit crimes not for monetary reward but because they can, because they’re enamored of a romantic image of the outlaw and they’re happy to live out that fantasy for a while until they get caught. Unlike some of Malick’s later characters, who often seem as hypnotized by nature’s splendor as the director is, Holly and Kit are blind to the natural world around them on their journey. At one point, as they speed through the desert in a stolen car, Holly says in voiceover, “Kit told me to enjoy the scenery and I did,” but in the next shot she’s sitting sideways in her seat, facing away from the window, reading a celebrity magazine with James Dean on the cover, quoting aloud from an article about Kit and herself before moving on to celebrity gossip tidbits. As destructive and violent as Kit is, his biggest crime is perhaps his ignorance of his place in the world, his desire to be famous like James Dean. If Malick’s films repeatedly suggest that humanity is just a blip in the universe, then Kit is the Malick character who most explicitly struggles against that state of affairs.
JB: Well, that depends on how one views Kit, and I think we see him a bit differently. Kit’s desire for real celebrity might be within him, dormant, all along, but I don’t sense a genuine yearning for fame in Kit until he (1) realizes that he definitely won’t make it to Canada and (2) experiences what it is to be notorious, which doesn’t happen until very late in the picture when the helicopter tracks them down, finally giving Kit evidence of the manhunt he’s mostly imagined to that point. Sure, Kit models himself after James Dean. Sure, he wishes he had wealth, which usually comes with celebrity. Sure, he leaves recordings at Holly’s burning house and at the wealthy man’s mansion, which suggests he has a flair for the spotlight. But I think Kit is motivated by something simpler. I think he just wants to be recognized on a very basic scale, not necessarily one of celebrity.
That desire for basic recognition is something that we can trace back to Kit’s first conversation with Holly, when he finds her twirling a baton on her front lawn and tells her that he has a lot of things to say. Kit’s introduction could be interpreted as the statement of a man obsessed with celebrity, but to me he’s just a man in need of someone, anyone, to listen to him and recognize him. That, as much as anything, is the root of the violence against Holly’s father, because when Kit threatens him, even firing his gun into the floor to show he means business, Holly’s father doesn’t obey him, doesn’t hear him, doesn’t recognize Kit. Holly, on the other hand, does listen, which is why Kit likes her around. As you quoted already, when he says frog, she jumps. When Kit ultimately gives himself up to police and basks in the fascination of the small army that had been assembled to track him down, I don’t think it fulfills any desired end game for celebrity. Instead, the guy who used to thirst for any kind of acknowledgement finds himself drunk on previously unimaginable levels of attention. He really only craves celebrity once he finds it.
Still, I agree with you that Badlands, like each of Malick’s films, shows the “ultimate insignificance of human ambition.” But what’s interesting about Malick’s movies, and Badlands especially, is that Malick is sympathetic to man’s attempt to conquer new frontiers, even if it brings them nothing but trouble. Kit’s a killer—not naturally born but quickly matured. He shoots people in the back. He shoots them when they’re unarmed. He shoots Holly’s father right in front of her and barely blinks. But Malick seems to appreciate Kit’s need to find a place where he feels in control of his life, even if that control is only an illusion.
EH: You’re probably right that Kit didn’t start out seeking fame and notoriety. He took celebrity because that was what was offered to him in a life of very limited opportunities, but he probably would’ve settled for someone to accept him, for Holly’s father not to treat him as a joke and a loser. In that, too, Kit is not unlike his idol James Dean, a tough guy with a core of vulnerability, desperately yearning for a father figure to temper his hard edges. Kit seems to know that he’s no good, and that he’s stumbled into a fate beyond his understanding. “I always wanted to be a criminal I guess,” he says, “just not this big of one.” But once he gets a taste for his tough-guy persona writ large in tabloids and the popular imagination, he wants more. When he’s being chased by the cops toward the end of the film, he adjusts the rearview mirror and at first he seems to be looking behind him, trying to keep an eye on his pursuers, but actually he’s just adjusting his hair, checking his own image as though preparing to face death looking his best. He wants to make sure he looks good at his big final moment, to live up to his Dean-like aura. Later, after he’s been caught, all of the cops (implausibly) treat him with respect and camaraderie, and in their presence he becomes docile, humble, personable, very friendly and charming, like he’s just a decent guy after all.
That gets to the heart of what you said about Malick’s sympathy for his characters’ futile struggles with destiny and nature. Malick obviously does have some feeling for Kit, this cocky and aimless young man who increasingly allows his basest impulses free reign, seemingly for lack of anything better to do. Malick, sensitive as always to environment and atmosphere, almost immediately conveys the sense of a dusty small town in the film’s opening minutes, as Kit lazily goes through his garbage rounds, a job he obviously doesn’t care about and easily walks away from. There’s an emptiness to this town, as though Kit and Holly are the only ones in it at times. Their connection is intense but at the same time built on convenience, on the fact that a go-nowhere guy like Kit can represent adventure to a simple girl like Holly, while she can provide him with the acquiescent, worshipful attention for which he thirsts. The flat, empty land, so beautiful to look at yet so boring to live in, defines their lives, their opportunities and even their relationship.
JB: That’s a good observation. It’s certainly a peculiarly flat relationship, especially considering how eventful it is. While Kit kills, burns, builds, hunts, connives, drives, etc., Holly walks around in a kind of daze, disconnected from the events around her, or simply uninterested in them. In a way, she regards Kit as if he were James Dean himself, which is to say that she regards him like he’s a character up on a movie screen performing actions that she witnesses with intimacy but cannot touch or affect. It’s as if she knows Kit is a movie star before he does. And yet at the same time she seems to have no clue whatsoever that she’s in a runaway movie.
One of the film’s most memorable sequences is when Holly looks at some vistas and portraits in her now-deceased father’s stereopticon, the black-and-white images filling the frame while we listen to Holly’s dreamy and naïve narration: “It hit me I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was just a sign painter, and who had only just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine, and I thought, ‘Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me, or killed anybody, this very moment?’” She goes on to wonder what her future husband looks like, and if he’s thinking of her. “Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land,” she admits, “but this never happened.” It’s a powerful scene because it shows Holly’s growing awareness of mortality—an awareness that’s taken the death of both of her parents to begin to set in—and because it unfolds with the haunting lyricism that is Malick’s specialty. And it’s an important scene because it shows that Holly isn’t emotionally aligned with Kit’s violence or even with Kit. But it’s also a slightly humorous scene, because even before Kit guns down the men who find their tree house in the forest it’s safe to assume that nothing in Holly’s future will ever be more eventful or fascinating than her present. The story she is living is the story she’ll be asked to retell for the rest of her life, and yet she’s completely disinterested in it.
Kit isn’t much more invested, really. The only difference is that he tries to convince himself that he’s having a good time. “We lived in utter loneliness, neither here nor there,” Holly says at one point. But then she adds, “Kit said that ‘solitude’ was a better word, ‘cause it meant more exactly what I wanted to say. Whatever the expression, I told him we couldn’t go on living this way.” Explicitly, she’s referring to their life in the wilderness and on the run, but there’s a sense that these characters have always felt that way, that they have always found themselves adrift, that they’ve always been searching for some personal utopia. Again and again in Malick’s films, characters search and search for that dream, and in moments they even get close enough to see and touch it. But in Malick’s films, the harder one tries to find that sense of peace, the harder it is to grasp and retain.
EH: I find Holly such a fascinating character precisely because of the disconnection you’re talking about. She drifts along through the film, barely seeming to understand the significance of the events she witnesses. After Kit shoots his friend Cato (Ramon Bieri), a couple shows up at the remote cabin where Cato lives, and Kit takes them prisoner while Holly watches with an expression of boredom. While Kit leads the guy off at gunpoint, Holly meanders along behind them, chatting with the girl prisoner. The girl asks Holly what’s going to happen to them, and that’s when Holly says that it’s up to Kit, that she jumps when Kit says “frog.” The chilling implication is that Holly would be okay with whatever happens next, that if Kit wants to kill the couple she won’t much care, that these strangers can live or die and she’ll just go along with it, as she goes along with everything Kit does. She speaks so casually, strolling along with the girl as though they’re simply enjoying a nice day together. When Kit shoots through the wooden door of the underground chamber where he traps the couple, he wonders aloud if he got them, but Holly just shrugs as they run away. Dead or alive, it’s all the same to her. Afterward, she worries in voiceover that Kit is “the most trigger-happy man I ever met,” but that’s the full extent of her concern. She keeps emphasizing in voiceover how many opportunities she has to slip away or escape, but the thought never seriously crosses her mind.
Instead, she acts like a bystander—or, as you say, an audience member at a violent movie. The monologue you cite, in which Holly wonders about what her life will be like in the future, suggests that she realizes that her current situation is finite, that she is not going to spend the rest of her life with Kit. There’s no romanticism in her, and no romanticism in Malick’s portrayal of the murderous couple. There’s little passion between Holly and Kit, little real feeling even. After Holly loses her virginity to Kit, she hilariously wonders if that’s what all the fuss was about; she’s a hard girl to impress. She reacts to everything with the same dead-eyed nonchalance, which makes her both strangely funny and almost sociopathic. A great example is the darkly humorous exchange that takes place after Kit shoots Cato. “I got him in the stomach,” he says. Holly doesn’t even flinch, she simply deadpans, “Is he upset?”
Malick seems to be deliberately working against the romantic stylization of the outlaw in the American cinema and popular literature. Kit wants to be James Dean and Holly acts as though all the murders happening around her can’t touch her, and together they stumble from one atrocity to the next, not so much evil as oblivious; they’re amoral rather than immoral. The film’s one real romantic gesture is only ironically romantic: the couple’s final ride towards the mountains is accompanied by Nat “King” Cole singing “A Blossom Fell,” a sweepingly romantic but melancholy song with saccharine strings that provides a slick counterpoint to the impending sense of doom hanging over the couple. They’re obviously heading towards the end, one way or another, but the pop beauty of the music is undercut by the continuing disconnection of the couple. While Kit determinedly rides towards the mountains, pretending he’s heading for freedom but knowing it’s almost all over for him, Holly sits next to him, dispassionately narrating Kit’s fears and staring blankly ahead, as though she’s simply waiting for all of this to be over. She’s seen this movie, and now she just wants the credits to roll.
JB: Holly is an interesting character study, to be sure. She’s so docile, so detached, and yet somehow she’s almost more disturbing than Kit, given all that she can endure without emotion. (At least Kit has rage.) Sissy Spacek’s performance is all freckles and blank stares. Her delivery of the narration has an unsophisticated quality that suggests the woman telling this story is only slightly more aware than the girl who lived through it. Spacek’s performance isn’t the kind of heavily acted turn that draws acclaim, but it’s perfect for the part. As shocking as it is to see Holly kneel down next to her wounded father without a hint of sorrow or anger, Spacek makes Holly’s passivity wholly convincing.
And then there’s Kit, who inspires one of the best performances of Martin Sheen’s career. It’s hard to think of another character who seems so tightly wound and yet so at ease. I love the scene in which Kit goes into a small recording booth to provide his explanation of the shooting—his face shifting rapidly from coldblooded intensity to blasé calm. I love the explosiveness with which Kit swings the gas can around Holly’s house, and the way he runs through the forest as if performing military drills. I love the paranoid awareness he exhibits high up in his tree house perch, scanning the forest for intruders. I love how in one shot Kit will strut through the frame, chin up, chest puffed out, exuding confidence, and in the next shot he’ll shuffle into the frame with his hands in his pockets, his head down and tilted toward a shoulder, as if he feels ashamed, shy or awkward. The movies are always giving us complicated killers, but it’s rare to encounter someone so evenly contradictory. (Usually, a killer’s violent streak ultimately outweighs any counterbalance.) Maybe that’s because Kit seems to be playing a role, transforming himself into his image of a runaway killer, eventually checking his hair in the mirror to make sure it looks right. One of my favorite details in the film is Holly’s note that Kit always forges his own signature—a sign that Kit doesn’t know who he is. “It takes all kinds,” Kit says more than once in the picture. But what kind is he?
By the end of the film, Kit seems as confident as ever. When he was on the run, he felt trapped, but now that he’s caught and in chains he seems at peace, delighted that so many people are now giving him the attention he so desperately needs. He’s found himself, climbed fully into his celebrity criminal role. Holly, on the other hand, seems as lost as before.
EH: Speaking of “conflicted killers,” it’s hard to watch Badlands without thinking of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, the film that provided an enduring cinematic template for this kind of criminal-couple-on-the-run picture. Malick is not often thought of as a genre filmmaker, but Badlands clearly belongs to the lineage of films like Bonnie and Clyde and Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, films about criminal romance, road movies punctuated with both violence and love scenes. In making Badlands, Malick is engaging with and in some ways subverting this tradition, just as he’d later engage with the tradition of the war movie in The Thin Red Line. Despite the similar subject matter, Badlands diverts from the example of Bonnie and Clyde in countless ways, starting with the unsentimental, unromantic depiction of the two central outlaws. Malick has some sympathy for his antiheroes, as we’ve already mentioned, but he doesn’t romanticize Kit and Holly the way Penn does with his robbers and murderers.
Malick also engages much more deeply with the sexual dynamics of this story. Penn’s Bonnie (as played by Faye Dunaway) is alternately a tough, sexually aggressive bad girl and a needy, clingy co-dependent—two opposing female stereotypes that she veers between throughout the film—while Holly is neither. What makes Holly interesting is that, unlike Bonnie, she’s a passive spectator to Kit’s crimes and killings, and yet she somehow seems more her own agent, her own individual person outside of the couple, than Bonnie ever does. She’s passive and docile, yes, but her passivity gives her a weird sort of independence, the antisocial independence of a woman who simply doesn’t much care about anything.
JB: That’s an interesting way of looking at her, and I see what you mean. To simply call Holly independent would be misleading, because even though Badlands is told through her narration, everything she says and does is a product of Kit: she leaves with him because he says so, takes her school books because he says so, even reconsiders her own feelings because he says so (“Kit said that ‘solitude’ was a better word, ‘cause it meant more exactly what I wanted to say”), and so on. But her ultimate indifference does individualize her to some degree: “the antisocial independence of a woman who simply doesn’t much care about anything.” Yeah, I think that’s right.
Your comparison to Bonnie is also a good one if for no other reason than because it leads us here: one of the things that makes Holly so peculiar is that even when she engages in stereotypically female concerns, she’s entirely unemotional about them. It’s unusual for female characters in movies to be unemotional in the first place, but it’s especially rare to see a female character so somber on the topics of love, marriage and sex. Holly talks about all those things at one point or another, and sometimes the words themselves seem passionate. But there’s no heartbeat behind those words. Holly flashes some flirtatious femininity the first time she meets Kit, and in that brief scene when they neck under the bleachers, but after that she regards him almost like a sibling. She’s unimpressed with her first sexual experience. She looks into the stereopticon and wonders about her future husband, which would be touching if not for the fact that she’s in the middle of a relationship when she does it. And as they escape north, she makes sure to note that it’s Kit who sees the mountains of Saskatchewan as a “magical land.” Kit’s the romantic one, not Holly. He’s the one who puts his devotion in writing and sends it off in a balloon. He’s the one who buries their possessions in the ground. He’s the one who makes Holly stop talking so they can dance to Nat “King” Cole. Kit is right: Holly is just along for the ride. And it’s unusual to encounter a female character on the big screen who is unsentimental and unfeeling not out of some feminist protest but out of absolute indifference.
But as far as unusual female narrators go, Holly is nothing compared to the one we meet in Malick’s next film, Days of Heaven. Depicting a love triangle on a Texas farm in the years leading up to the United States’ entry into World War I, Days of Heaven is narrated by a character who has both the naïveté of the young teenager she is and the worldliness of someone four or five times her age. Her name is Linda (Linda Manz), the younger sister of Richard Gere’s Bill, and she speaks with the vision of a poet and the broken vocabulary of an uneducated drifter. Her dialogue and narration demonstrate an obliviousness to the adult emotional warfare going on around her, and yet she also reveals an emotional connection to life’s big mysteries and underlying truths. In one scene she’ll describe the apocalypse or comment on the events on the farm as if she foresaw them. In the next she’ll interrupt a heartbroken friend who has been left by her boyfriend to ask about a scar on her ear. Like Holly in Badlands, Linda is both present within the story and beyond it, looking back. But unlike Holly she’s often commenting on events that seem to be beyond her line of sight. She’s an entirely unreliable witness, and yet somehow she always seems to stumble upon the truth.
EH: It’s certainly a very interesting style of narration, and it solidifies what would come to be Malick’s own distinctive approach to the voiceover, an aesthetic that would characterize all of his work. All of his narrators—Linda as well as the multiple narrators of The Thin Red Line and The New World—have that same mix of worldliness, naïveté and poetic grandeur. Linda, though, is something special. She has an illiterate, garbled way of speaking, an oddball accent that’s half urban tough and half rural drawl, which I suppose is appropriate for a Chicago youth who winds up spending a couple of years on a Texas farm. She speaks as though naïve, but one senses that she understands more than she lets on. She seems to have an intuitive grasp for the implications of what’s happening around her, even if she lacks the vocabulary—or maybe the desire—to express these feelings clearly.
When a small circus troupe visits the farm where she’s staying and puts on a show with comedy routines and silent movies, Linda narrates the scene with what at first seems to be another of her poetic non-sequiturs, a rambling speech about Satan and Hell: “The devil just sittin’ there laughin’. He’s glad when people does bad. Then he sends them to the snake house. He just sits there and laughs and watch while you’re sittin’ there all tied up in snakes that are eatin’ your eyes out. They go down your throat and eat all your systems out.” It’s a chilling speech, the meaning of which becomes clearer as the circus performance transitions into scenes of Bill whispering conspiratorially with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), who, pretending to be Bill’s sister, has married a rich, lonely and ailing farmer (Sam Shepard) in order to become his heir. While the farmer watches, growing suspicious of his bride and her “brother,” Linda’s narration suddenly returns for one final thought: “I think the devil was on the farm.”
The devil, it turns out, is Linda’s brother Bill, who leaves the farm for a year after this scene and then returns, ushering in the fire and bibilical plagues of the film’s climax. Linda, though, is philosophical about it all. After the tragedy and destruction of this climax, all she can say is, “Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just got half devil and half angel in you.” To me, lines like these suggest that maybe Linda is not as oblivious or childlike as she sometimes seems. Does she really not understand the emotionally charged struggle taking place between Bill, Abby and the farmer? Or is all her talk of the devil a way of shifting the blame away from the human mistakes of Bill and Abby and onto a metaphysical evil force that can’t be seen?
JB: I suppose the reason it’s hard for me to accept that Linda appreciates what’s going on around her is that we never see her act accordingly. Linda’s voiceover is wise and seemingly all-knowing, but Linda herself, the young girl on the screen, never has a moment that suggests she gets it. In fact, there’s evidence that she doesn’t. In one scene, Linda walks with her friend through waist-high wheat and upon being asked if she has any siblings, answers that she only has a brother, Bill. In another scene, she tells the nosy and suspicious foreman that her brother came from Chicago and worked in a factory. In some of Linda’s initial narration, she points out the dangers of gossip and the need to protect one’s self, and yet that wisdom doesn’t trickle down to her actions. Instead, she blithely provides information that threatens to blow Bill’s elaborate plan. The most awareness that her physical character displays is when Linda asks Abby, “Why are you doing this?” But given the elliptical nature of Malick’s films, we can’t quite be sure what “this” is. Linda can obviously see that Abby is forming a relationship with Sam Shepard’s farmer, but she doesn’t know why. It’s beyond her. Only in the voiceover does she seem prescient. A little later in the film, Linda narrates, “Sometimes I feel very old, like my whole life’s over, like I’m not around no more.” Indeed, her narration seems to come from beyond the grave.
Speaking of things past, what I love most about Days of Heaven is the way it captures a bygone age. The movie is set in a time in which so much of western America remains untamed, a sense that Malick creates in part with all those shots of animals that evoke the western frontier: buffalo, pronghorn, elk, pheasant, peafowl, rabbits and so on. But even more significantly, the movie is set in an era in which communities were actually groups of people rather than geographical places, as they are today in violation of the true meaning of the word. What begins with that unforgettable shot of grubby drifters atop a freight train riding to wherever they can find work becomes touching portraits of communal life on the farm. In one incredible left-to-right pan we see someone basting a huge piece of meat on a spit, two guys performing acrobatic tricks and a guy swinging a lasso above his head. From there we cut to a man reading a book, and then a father putting a hat on his young child sitting in the grass and then a shot of Linda tap-dancing with a man on a wooden door while a guy in the background plays the harmonica. These depictions are multiracial and multicultural, and they are not without strife—Bill gets into one fight, and later we see two other guys wrestling in the dust—but they are dominated by a sense of shared experience. These people are all out for themselves, but they are all in it together.
EH: That’s true, and that idea goes hand in hand with Malick’s examination of socioeconomic realities and social strata. The film isn’t only a precise evocation of a previous era, it’s about a specific way of life in that era, about the experience of the poor, the homeless masses drifting from one place to another in search of any menial work they can find. The opening credits roll over a series of period still photos of lower-class people, sepia-toned and grimy, fading seamlessly at the end of the credits into the images of the industrial district where Bill works at the beginning of the film, shoveling coal, his face spotted with ash. Malick brings a sense of poetic visual grandeur to the drifters’ train journey—that shot of the train, a thin black line against a pale blue sky, chugging thick black smoke in its wake, is stunning—but he still powerfully conveys the squalor and the frustration of this lifestyle.
As in all of Malick’s work, beauty and natural splendor coexist with human suffering, and that suffering coexists with more joyful emotions as well. This is not a simplistic depiction of the degradation of poverty—there are countless scenes in which Bill, Abby and Linda find pleasure in their simple situation—but class tension is a big part of the film’s substance. Bill and Abby’s relationship is strained by their material circumstances, by the fact that they have no steady home, no steady work. When the harvest is nearly complete at the farm, Bill begins talking about heading to New York, and when Abby asks why he simply says, “to be there,” to see what will happen next, what they can do to get by. It’s obvious that they’re growing tired of this aimless, unsatisfying subsistence living.
It’s this lower-class life, of course, that Bill wants to escape when he concocts his scheme to exploit the farmer’s desire for Abby. And when the scheme works, the difference in lifestyles is striking, as Linda enthuses in voiceover. “We never been this rich, alright? I mean we were just, we were all of a sudden livin’ like kings. Just nothin’ to do all day but crack jokes, lay around. We didn’t have to work. I’m tellin’ you, the rich got it figured out.” (And the defensiveness embedded in that “alright?” is perhaps another sign of Linda’s understanding of this situation.) It’s a depiction of class that more or less contradicts the idea of the American dream, which says that if you work hard enough you can succeed and thrive. Instead, the film’s image of class in America equates poverty with hard work and wealth with idleness and languor.
JB: There’s a detachment to wealth, too. Granted, there’s only one wealthy character in this film, so it’s a little dangerous to assume that Malick means for Shepard’s farmer to symbolize every wealthy person. But the contrast between the impoverished and the wealthy is so extreme in this film that it’s obvious Malick means to comment on that gap. Shepard’s farmer has everything in this film in terms of material wealth, but he’s lacking in every other respect. His house on the hill is beautiful yet lonely. His caring foreman loves him like a son, and yet his adoptive manner only underlines the farmer’s solitude. In one scene, the farmer is told that after that year’s crop he’ll be “the richest man in the panhandle,” but the farmer responds to that information by peering silently through a telescope, a symbol of his remove. The drifters in this film are forced to live and sleep almost on top of one another, but in that physical closeness there is an emotionally strengthening bond that the farmer lacks. Indeed, it’s as if the supposedly terminal farmer is dying of loneliness, because as soon as Bill, Abby and Linda help him to create a family, his health improves. Similar to the way that Linda’s narration seems more worldly than the actual character, it’s worth noting that for all the times we’re told that the impoverished workers are miserable, they rarely actually seem it (other than Bill, that is). They work these pitiless, backbreaking jobs from dusk until dawn, day after day, and yet they seem surprisingly content, probably because they have no other choice. The point is, although the film is most idyllic in scenes like the one in which the farmer, Bill, Abby and Linda play baseball together—those precious days of heaven in the film’s title—there’s never a point in this film in which we envy the farmer.
Having just mentioned the way the laborers work from dusk until dawn, I want to shift gears now to talk about the film’s cinematography, particularly its use of exterior light, because Days of Heaven’s exteriors are frequently cited by those who think that the stunning cinematography of Malick’s filmography is nothing more than pretty wrapping paper on an empty package. In a takedown of the film for The New Republic, which in the interest of full disclosure I must mention that I’ve never been able to read in full, Stanley Kauffmann called the film’s beauty “a lavish blanket on a coffin.” Then he delivered what Malick agnostics would consider the coup de grâce: “One sign of too-pretty photography is that nothing ever happens at midday, only early or late in the day when the light slants.” Malick is known for shooting his pictures using only natural light whenever possible, but his critics essentially suggest that these technically natural portraits and panoramas are nonetheless artificial, collectively if not necessarily individually, because they show the world in these fleeting moments of unusual splendor and suggest them as the norm. I have thoughts on this, but first tell me what you think. Is Malick’s filmmaking “too pretty,” and if so, what does that mean? Or are the charges that Malick’s filmmaking is “too pretty” fundamentally flawed?
EH: I think that Kauffmann quote is off-base. Malick’s work, though naturalistic to some degree, is not truly meant to be realistic, so his criticisms of Malick’s choices of shooting times ring false. I’ve often talked of directors whose aesthetics present a “heightened reality,” including the subject of our last conversation, Wong Kar-wai. Malick too is concerned not with reality as it is but reality as it could or should be: the sublime beauty latent in ordinary reality, teased out by his sumptuous photography. That’s why it’s banal to note that Malick’s films don’t contain any drab images, any moments where the light is less than striking. The artist’s task is to present his vision of the world, to display the world as he sees it, and it’s obvious that this is how Malick sees the world, that this perpetual magic hour bliss is Malick’s deeply felt perspective on the natural beauty of the world. To criticize Malick for the beauty of Néstor Almendros’s cinematography is to be blind to the heart of this film.
To me, a more valid point is that the extreme beauty of Malick’s imagery sometimes overwhelms the people who populate those images—people who are dwarfed by the wide expanses of the natural world. Badlands, as a character-driven story with two very distinctive antiheroes at its center, is an exception, but in the rest of Malick’s films, starting with Days of Heaven, it often seems like his characters aren’t fully fleshed-out people so much as they are allegorical constructs. That’s why the farmer—who doesn’t even get a name—can symbolize every wealthy person, or at least can symbolize the idea of wealth and success. The central love triangle is pretty flat and generic, and as I said in my original review of the film, “Malick has as much feeling for a wheat field shot at the ‘magic hour’ as he does for an expressive face or a moment of tenderness between two people,” an opinion I still hold several viewings later.
To be clear, while I can see why some would be put off by the sense that foliage is as important as people to Malick, I don’t think this is really a bad thing—at least not in Days of Heaven. In this film, the beauty of nature, the allegorical ideas, the tension between the sublime and the prosaic: those things are the point. Of course the film is artificial, its beauty unearthly and surreal even though it’s shot entirely in natural light in outdoor locations. The cumulative effect of Days of Heaven is to suggest that human life in all its complexity is simply a part of the continuum of the natural world, which is why any individual story, any emotional drama, isn’t nearly as important or compelling as a particularly beautiful sunset, or a swarm of bibilical locusts raining upwards across the frame, or a scarecrow framed against an orange sky. Malick’s imagery is pretty, yes, but it’s not emptily pretty, which seems to be the real meat of his critics’ contentions.
JB: We’re pretty much on the same page here. The main reason I find many of the “too pretty” complaints tiresome is that they tend to do one of two things: (1) penalize Malick for daring to capture visual lushness in a visual art form; and/or (2) penalize Malick for daring to be interested in things beyond human-driven plot. Either of those complaints can be boiled down to this: Malick’s films don’t look like other films, and therefore there must be something wrong with them. Actually, to recall another of our conversations, the complaints against the beauty of Malick’s movies aren’t totally unlike the lavish praise heaped on Pixar, albeit from a different direction. In both cases, an arbitrary norm is set, and anything breaking from that norm is considered radical, for worse or better. Whenever I hear someone imply that Malick’s pictures are too pretty, I wonder why we aren’t demanding that more films look this luscious, because while it’s certainly true that Malick’s films have a preponderance of striking natural images, for the most part it’s the quality and quantity of these images that set Malick apart, not the subject matter. For each jaw-dropping shot, like a cloud of locusts swirling overhead, there will be two fairly straightforward shots, like an orange sky over the horizon—the kinds of shots that even average filmmakers employ, just not as gloriously or frequently. Malick’s sin is repeatedly taking our breath away with compositions that in another filmmaker’s hands would be mundane.
You’re absolutely correct that one of the reasons people are turned off by Malick’s attention to nature is that it’s unusual to see a filmmaker as interested in the natural world as in his human characters, so it’s important to think about why that is. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that nature has thematic significance in Malick’s world. Part of the reason is that Malick emphasizes emotion over plot. But just as significant is this: most filmmakers use exteriors to do little more than establish a physical location for the action. In the average film, exteriors are spaces between the words, or at best punctuation. In Malick’s filmography, exteriors are the words themselves. It’s an unconventional approach, sure, but hardly an empty one. When I hear that Malick’s films are too pretty, I can’t help but think of times that writers or speakers are criticized for being too eloquent, too well spoken, too educated. Implied in such charges is pretentiousness, and the same is true here. And yet the irony is that critics don’t imply that Malick’s images are beyond his audience—as if he’s using big words that require a dictionary. They imply that his images have no meaning at all.
Does a noticeable portion of Days of Heaven occur in the magic hour? Certainly. But it’s also true that, thematically speaking, Malick’s film lives on the fringe of light and darkness. The magic hour is as appropriate here as midnight is to film noir and rainstorms are to tragedies. Malick means to suggest the smallness and insignificance of these characters, and he does so by suggesting the enormousness and magnificence of the world around them.
EH: What you say about Malick’s nature imagery being more than simple establishing shots definitely resonates. Malick’s approach to nature and scenery aligns him much more closely with the avant-garde than with the conventional mainstream, narrative-focused filmmaker. After Badlands, Malick has seemed less and less interested in narrative and character, and more and more interested in capturing moods, examining themes, and, especially, in displaying beauty for its own sake. There’s also a very obvious spiritual/religious component to the relationship between humanity and nature in Malick’s work. There are explicit references to fire-and-brimstone Christianity in Days of Heaven, but Malick’s religiosity is not limited to any one denomination: it’s more a general embrace of the otherworldly implications of the world’s beauty and strangeness. Watching stalks of wheat waving in the wind, one feels the presence of something other, something beyond the human scale. Even for an atheist like me, Days of Heaven is a spiritual experience, one that doesn’t require any specific belief or devotion to a particular god so much as a general awe at the things in the world that defy humanity’s sense of control and mastery.
That’s why a sense of scale is so important to Malick, and also why he’s tended to move more and more away from traditional narrative. Traditional narrative demands human agency, and Malick is more interested in the lack of agency. The locusts simply appear one day; one moment everything’s tranquil and beautiful and the next moment there are bugs placidly perched on every surface. Malick’s characters are often unable to make choices for themselves, instead drifting through life, letting things happen to them. Bill and Abby make one big choice that does irrevocably alter their lives, but the focus of the film is on what can’t be controlled, on the forces—whether economic or natural—that operate far beyond the level of individual human dramas. Malick’s later films, after the 20-year break separating Days of Heaven from The Thin Red Line, have worked on this level even more, whether their themes are the relentlessness of history and progress as in The New World or the eternal destructiveness of human wars in The Thin Red Line.
In Days of Heaven, despite Linda’s earthy voiceover, the film’s perspective seems almost godlike and omniscient, the slightly disinterested viewpoint of a being for whom human affairs are only a single piece of a far larger puzzle. The camera is easily distracted from the people within the frame, and when the locusts arrive Malick’s camera tracks in to watch the insects nibbling at the stalks of wheat, their eerie eyes staring into the lens, ready for their closeup. Not since Saul Bass’s Phase IV have insects had so much personality and agency—and the human characters so little.
JB: I’m so glad you brought up Phase IV, because I suspect that’s precisely the kind of movie that some people think of when they encounter those locust closeups. You meant no disrespect in comparing Malick’s use of insects to that 1974 sci-fi horror film, but those befuddled by Malick’s filmography would likely see the similarities as damning, because just like most of the exteriors we encounter at the movies are mere establishing shots, most extreme closeups of insects at the movies are playful gags, the stuff of Phase IV or Them!. Through such fantastic films, Hollywood has conditioned us to be amused by such images, and the truth is that even without Phase IV or Them! we’d likely be a bit amused anyway, because individual locusts aren’t majestic creatures; there’s something inherently goofy about seeing such miniature creatures filling up almost every inch of the big screen—which of course is the root appeal of Them! and Phase IV in the first place. The point is, when a Malick agnostic sees an extreme closeup of a locust munching on wheat, he probably thinks Malick has given undue attention to the insignificant, when in fact Malick seems to be trying to suggest that these insects that destroy the farmer’s crop are no more insignificant than the humans who tended to it. That’s a strong statement that I think many viewers aren’t willing to consider. To them, the insect shots must play like unintentional punchlines.
If Malick used only extreme closeups of insects to get his point across, I’d be more understanding of those who feel that such shots are random or empty. But Malick finds several ways to suggest the insignificance of his human characters that have nothing whatsoever to do with nature. For example, twice in this film reminders of the outside world make their way into the idyllic setting: first when President Wilson’s train blows by on its whistlestop tour, and then when the circus comes to town on two small propeller planes. Both events suggest just how removed the farm is from the real world, which in turn makes it clear that the love triangle that’s of the utmost importance to everyone on the farm is entirely inconsequential to anyone beyond it. It’s not that Malick doesn’t care about these individuals. He just never loses sight of the bigger picture.
EH: That’s exactly my point. And I definitely did not mean the Phase IV comparison as an insult, in part because I don’t see Bass’s film as goofy. (Okay, I admit it’s goofy—but it’s also haunting and idiosyncratic and thematically consonant with Malick’s vision of the world.) It’s another good example of a film that dares to put the focus of the narrative on non-human presences, with the ants, oddly enough, being far more charismatic and interesting than the humans trying to destroy them. Malick doesn’t reverse the equation that thoroughly, but as you say, his emphasis on nature—on both the macro level and the micro level—is only part of his general interest in the way things fit together beyond the immediate story. That’s why it makes sense that Malick’s next film, The Thin Red Line—which appeared after a gap of 20 years during which the director didn’t make another movie—would further submerge stories and characters into the overall mood, fragmenting the solitary narrators of Badlands and Days of Heaven into multiple voices, all telling their own stories without any one being more important than the others.
As I mentioned earlier, Malick’s third film represents the director engaging with genre. This is a war movie, but as though to assure viewers that Malick’s sensibility hadn’t changed during his long absence from the cinema, it doesn’t start like a war movie. Instead, the film opens with an idyllic sequence on a tropical island, where the military deserters Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Train (John Dee Smith) spend their days swimming in the clear blue water, lounging beneath waterfalls, and watching the islanders go about their languid days. They play with the islanders’ kids, admire the natural beauty of the land, and listen to the beautiful choral music of the Pacific islands as the native people sing and clap in unison, joy in their faces and in their voices.
The peacefulness and natural splendor of this sequence—so typical of Malick’s style—is only interrupted by the sinister arrival of an American warship, glimpsed through the trees, the same way the ships of the arriving pilgrims would disturb the tranquility of the beginning of Malick’s next film, The New World. That’s a recurring theme in Malick’s work, with human presence appearing as a threat, a disruption, a tear in the fabric of the natural world.
JB: That’s a perfect way to put it. Over the course of The Thin Red Line, we watch that tear go deeper and deeper into Guadalcanal—over beaches, up hills, through jungles, down rivers. And for what? The Thin Red Line isn’t politically anti-war, by which I mean that there’s nothing in the film that suggests that the Battle of Guadalcanal was purposeless or criminal. Malick may not go so far as to portray it as a heroic or just war, which of course is the mood of Steven Spielberg’s World War II picture Saving Private Ryan, which came out that same year, but he doesn’t imply that it’s an unjust war either. In fact, Malick is almost sympathetic in regard to the enormity and irrepressibility of World War II’s momentum. Nick Nolte’s Col. Tall is a Homer-quoting maniac in one scene, and a guy for whom drinking water is considered a luxurious indulgence in another, but Malick traces Tall’s insensitive tunnel vision for militaristic conquest back to his superior officer, a brigadier general played by John Travolta, who before giving Tall his orders looks at Guadalcanal and wonders what on earth the Japanese army is doing there: “Why do the Japs build an airfield there, of all places? I guess we don’t know the bigger picture, do we? If there is such a thing.” Travolta’s Quintard has no interest in bringing war to Guadalcanal, but there’s where the enemy is, and that’s where the fight has to go. He has no choice. War expands like the roots of one of Malick’s mighty trees; that’s its nature. But while Malick doesn’t offer political objections to this or any war, he does offer spiritual ones. The damage done to the tranquil island speaks for itself while also serving as a metaphor for what’s happening to these soldiers.
Malick’s decision to divvy the narration amongst more than a half-dozen characters, including a dead Japanese soldier and an American soldier’s wife back in the United States, may be one of the most divisive and controversial of his career. In the least it’s an unusual approach: movies rarely have this many narrators, and when movies do have narrators they tend to be main characters who hang around for the duration of the picture. Malick breaks that trend, giving voice to whomever he sees fit, at whatever length he feels appropriate. Beyond that, Malick isn’t always explicit about who’s narrating. Numerous times in the film, we hear the voice of a narrator quite a bit before Malick gives us a shot that connects the voice with a character, and other times Malick will throw in a line of voiceover with almost no visual connection whatsoever. In most cases it’s possible to make these connections ourselves, on the basis of accent or context, but even the most keen-eared and attentive of first-time viewers will likely find the array of voices dizzying, which is clearly just fine by Malick, who means to have these words, thoughts and emotions overlap one another like the leaves in a jungle canopy. “Every man fights his own war,” reads the tagline on the poster for this film (which, by the way, has decorated the living room wall of every place I’ve lived since college), and that’s what this split narration suggests: each voice is reaching for the light, desperate to be heard. Personally, I love this approach. But I certainly understand why people find it frustratingly disorienting.
EH: I have to say, the use of multiple voiceovers, though thematically appropriate to what Malick means to accomplish here, is one of the choices in this film that I’m somewhat ambivalent about. At the beginning of this conversation, I admitted that I can’t quite join you in the choir of Malick true believers, even though I admire and enjoy much of his work. And the problems I have with Malick’s work, which were miniscule quibbles in his generally excellent first two films, become much more insistent when I’m talking about his later career. I find The Thin Red Line a frustrating film, at times almost unbearably moving, and at other times equally unbearable in its over-the-top poetic aestheticization. Malick’s verbal stylization was easier to take, for me, in Badlands and Days of Heaven, where the narration was tied to a single distinctive voice, a single personality. Here, there are multiple voices, all of them spouting poetry in effusive Malick-speak, and the plenitude of different voices and accents blur together. Rather than feeling like different narrators speaking their individual minds, it feels like all of the film’s narrators are simply taking turns reading from the same larger text, a text provided by Malick and the author James Jones, whose novels The Thin Red Line and From Here To Eternity Malick is adapting and quoting.
Maybe that sensation of sameness is purposeful. At one point, one of the narrators (I think it’s Witt) says that all of humanity shares a single soul, that different faces and bodies are merely surfaces disguising the essential oneness of the world’s people. That’s a beautiful sentiment in one way, but from another perspective it seems like Malick is de-individualizing his characters, subsuming them into the larger mass of humanity. He wants to deal with humanity as a whole rather than as individuals. That tagline, “every man fights his own war,” sounds good but I’m not convinced that it actually applies to the film. The individual voices of the soldiers are tangled together to such an extent that the individual man often ceases to matter, especially since the dialogue other than the voiceovers tends to be fairly minimal. Quintard and the soldiers beneath him may have no grasp of the bigger picture, but the bigger picture—meaning the nature and philosophy of war—is precisely what Malick is interested in examining here. He’s chasing after the “great evil” of war, the mystery of why men kill and maim each other like this, but I’d argue that in focusing on the big picture he doesn’t zoom in often enough for a glance at the details.
JB: Interesting. I understand how you get to where you are, and I’ll concede that the tagline can be used by the film’s detractors as well as by its supporters, but the way I see it, both things are true: Malick is recognizing the multitude of individual responses while also throwing them together in one giant tangled mass. At the risk of giving the tagline undue attention, what I love about it is that it can be read at least two different ways: one is to take it as a reminder of every human’s personal struggle regardless of subject and/or context (war, relationships, mortality, religion, etc.); another is to take it as a reminder that actual physical wars are won and lost by masses of individuals who are at the center of their own universe. I understand why people watch The Thin Red Line and think that the individual is lost in Malick’s embrace of the collective, but I see it differently. I see Malick doing his best to make us feel the impact of each individual life equally, to not feel for one soldier’s fear or death above another’s, to see these guys not as heroes but as humans. He doesn’t completely achieve this, of course, because Malick does “develop” (relatively speaking) the characters of James Caviezel’s Witt, Elias Koteas’s Staros, Sean Penn’s Welsh and Ben Chaplin’s Bell, whereas other characters are nothing more than names (Jared Leto’s Whyte, for instance), and many other characters even less than that. But in spirit I think he gets there.
Some of the most tragic images in the film come from characters we hardly know: there’s Woody Harrelson’s Keck accidentally killing himself with a grenade and using his dying breaths to plead to the guys around him to write a letter to his girlfriend; there’s Adrien Brody’s Fife, who walks around with a scared-shitless expression on his face for the entire film; and there’s Nick Stahl’s Beade fearfully rambling to Welsh shortly before they invade the shores of the island. To a somewhat lesser yet nonetheless powerful extent, there’s also the scene when Leto’s Whyte gestures an order for two soldiers to run up the face of the hill toward a hidden enemy only to almost swallow his gum when both men are quickly and unremarkably shot down: pop-pop, pop-pop. I could go on, but to me the grace of The Thin Red Line isn’t the eloquence of the narration. It’s the fact that when I think of tragic moments in this film I think of the fates of the characters I hardly know. As the dead Japanese solider puts it in his brief voiceover: “Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too.” As the voices overlap, yes, the individualism of the characters fades away, but it is replaced by a powerful feeling of commonality, a sense that, as you said, they share a single soul. It’s that soul we get to know, until it reaches the point that Witt isn’t just speaking “over” the other characters on screen but for them. Is the language poetic? No question. But even if this narration is less individualized than Holly’s in Badlands, it really isn’t too far removed from Linda’s in Days of Heaven. The language is poetic because it’s spoken by the soul, expressing the feelings that the men couldn’t articulate on their own. I realize that must sound like an effort to rationalize Malick’s approach, but that’s just how it hits me.
EH: That’s fair enough, and I should stress that, at its best, I do feel like the film achieves the balance you’re talking about, where each life is weighed equally, each story given its due. At one point, Malick cuts away from the battle, from the dying men and the chaos, to show a scruffy bird trying to struggle to its feet amidst the thick roots at the base of a tree, another of his many visual assertions that mankind’s place in the world is shared equally by other animals, by flora and oceans and dirt as well. In another scene, a soldier lying on a hillside gets momentarily distracted, during a lull in the fighting, by a tall stalk of grass in front of his face. He runs it between his fingers, mesmerized, the blood and bullets forgotten in his awe at this simple sign of nature’s beauty. Malick, one senses, sees himself in this soldier: awed by the world, even when all around this moment of quiet contemplation, men are killing and dying. In a later shot, as the soldiers charge, seen from behind, indistinguishable from one another as they often are, a bright blue butterfly flickers across the frame behind them, a flash of brilliant color that’s a startling contrast against all the monochrome green of the grass, the trees, the uniforms of the soldiers.
Such moments suggest that Malick is unwilling or unable to ignore the beauty of the world even when everything seems grim and horrible. One of the voiceovers, recalling the shot of the bird whose weak-legged struggles had paralleled the dying soldiers, delivers a parable: “One man looks at a dying bird and sees nothing but unanswered pain. But death gets the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man looks at that same bird and feels the glory, sees something smiling through it.” That’s Malick at his best right there, the man who looks at the dying bird—or the dying soldier—and sees not only the anguish but the beauty, the poetry, the spiritual fulfillment.
This is a challenging, ambitious thematic focus for a war film, so it’s no surprise that sometimes Malick’s poetry comes across as maudlin rather than moving. At times, his emphasis on the communal rather than the individual leads to clichés—perhaps inevitably, because what are clichés but generalizations about large groups of people? The most cloying scenes in the film revolve around Marty (Miranda Otto), the wife of the soldier Bell, seen in the soldier’s dialogue-free flashbacks to his idyllic married life back home, and heard in voiceover when she writes her husband a letter. The flashbacks are inoffensive, sensual but rather empty, generic depictions of the soldier’s longing for his woman’s company, but the wife’s letter is one of the most eye-rolling moments in a film that frequently flirts with over-the-top emotionality. In typically Malickian florid language, she tells her husband that she is leaving him for another man, then says, “Oh my friend of all those shining years, help me leave you,” to which I can only respond, “Oh, brother!” At times like this, I’m thankful that so much of The Thin Red Line glides by without dialogue, even as I wish that perhaps he’d trimmed a bit more of that overblown language to focus even more intently on the wordless splendor and raw emotion he’s so adept at capturing.
JB: Oh, Ed! The storyline between Bell and his wife might be my favorite in the film, and her letter is a powerful conclusion to it. It’s a storyline that Malick constructs effectively over the course of the film through installments that might seem ephemeral individually but that enhance one another in the collective experience. Near the end of the film, in a summation of everything we’ve seen, Penn’s Welsh reflects via narration, “Only one thing a man can do: Find something that’s his. Make an island for himself.” That’s precisely what Bell is trying to do with his wife. She’s more than the person he loves. She’s his sanity, his inner peace. Even more than that, she’s his hope, the tool he uses to convince himself that he can come out of this war the same man who went into it. “I want to stay changeless for you,” Bell says in a moment of dreamy narration, imagining his wife. But it’s clear that he needs to stay changeless for himself, too. He clings to her memory in a desperate attempt to feel that his true self isn’t so far away.
Bell’s flashbacks or fantasies about his wife are captured in some of the most evocative shots in the film. There are the shots of Bell’s wife in a yellow dress on a swing, repeatedly drifting away to the far corner of the frame, and then swinging back into crisp focus, as if suggesting the difficulty Bell has fully conjuring his wife’s face in his memory after so much time away. There are the shots of his wife in a blue dress wading into the water at a beach, as if symbolizing the physical gap between them. And there are repeated shots of curtains blowing gently in the breeze of their open bedroom window, as if suggesting that his wife feels his distant presence somewhere out there, far away. Just before Bell reads the letter from his wife, Malick gives us a shot of his wife sitting up in bed, looking out that window, clearly thinking about him, and it’s only in the final moment that we realize that there’s another figure in the bed alongside her. Through that simple shot, we feel the devastation before Bell does, but we also sense his wife’s genuine affection for him, a sense that, yes, she’s with another man now, and, yes, probably in love, but that if she had the power she would have kept Bell from leaving her in the first place.
“Help me leave you.” I can see why that strikes you as maudlin, but that line slays me. It captures an emotion that I think happens frequently in life but that rarely makes it up on the screen: that awful point at the end of a failed relationship when one suddenly realizes all that they’ve shared and lost. Granted, it makes it up on the screen in this case because Malick allows it to be explicitly stated, and that opens the door for charges of excessive sentimentality. But I think the emotion is earned.
In that sequence when Bell is talking about remaining changeless for his wife, clinging to his love for her as his internal truth, longing not just for a physical closeness but an emotional one, part of the narration unfolds like this:
How do we get to those other shores? To those blue hills?
Where does it come from?
Who lit this flame in us?
For me, that’s one of the most lyrically effective sequences in all of Malick. The word “Love” operates not only as the answer to the first portion but as the beginning of the second. It’s beautifully poetic in its own right, and it complements Malick’s visuals, as Bell stares over an expanse of water and imagines being intimate with his wife. Malick does “wordless splendor” as well as any filmmaker. And, for better or worse, he does “overblown language,” too. I will grant you that sometimes the latter simply makes one long for the former. But some of the rawest moments in Malick come from those (potentially) overblown words.
EH: I wish I felt the emotion of the Bell plot as intensely as you obviously do, but for the most part it feels too melodramatic and overly familiar to really touch me, though there are plenty of other sequences in The Thin Red Line that I find incredibly powerful. I do like that narration about love that you quote, especially since the phrasing of it mirrors the similar narration in which Malick’s characters ask where the “great evil” in the world comes from. As one man wonders why the world is so full of cruelty and pain, another wonders about the possibility of love and connection: both extremes are equally mysterious, like so much about the human heart and soul. That symmetry is very Malickian, that idea that human behavior is ineffable whether motivated by love or by hatred.
That’s why my favorite thread in the film is arguably the best representation of that dialectic, the story of the soldier Witt, who is the closest the film comes to a central character. Witt is the innocent at war, a man whose inner serenity allows him to retain his decency and innocence in a way that puzzles and frustrates his superior officer, Sean Penn’s Welsh, who knows that he’s been changed and damaged irrevocably by the war in a way that Witt seems to have avoided. After the American soldiers storm the Japanese camp, Witt plays with his canteen, letting water stream over a large curved leaf, watching the path of the water across the surface of the leaf. As he stares into the reflective surface of the small pond that the soldiers are clustered around, he thinks back to his time as a deserter, and his memory burbles up into the film like bubbles emerging from the depths of the water. The beautiful vocal-and-clapping music of the South Pacific islanders fades in on the soundtrack as he remembers bathing in a waterfall or watching the islanders with their canoes.
That music—so sweet and heartfelt and wonderful—returns several times as a symbol of the innocence and tranquility that Witt found at the beginning of the film. The film ends, after Witt’s death, with a series of peaceful shots that might represent his soul’s path back away from the battle, away from the war and its horrors. An islander in a canoe drifts slowly along a river, heading from a small open body of water into a narrow stream surrounded on all sides by the dense darkness of the jungle. A pair of parrots groom one another’s feathers. The ocean rolls up towards an empty beach, the waves pouring over a small rock with a few shoots of green leaves sticking up out of the water. And then, as the image fades to the black of the credits, the singing of the islanders returns to the soundtrack one last time, so that the film both begins and ends with innocence and beauty. In between these spiritual, moving bookends, there is a great deal of violence, noise and chaos, but in the end Malick suggests that the horrors of the war can be enveloped by a natural order that encompasses both the best and the worst of the world and of humanity. Witt, it seems, understood that, intuitively at least, while Welsh and most of the other soldiers do not.
JB: Witt is certainly the soul of the film, but I find myself wondering if perhaps Welsh is the stand-in for Malick. I know that seems like an odd choice. After all, Malick’s films are overflowing with awe for the natural world, and The Thin Red Line, with its numerous shots of a heavenly light penetrating the jungle canopy, is filled with a heightened spirituality that would indicate that Malick’s heart beats within Witt, the guy who finds beauty in everything around him. But maybe not. Maybe Witt is Malick’s ideal, his hero, something he aspires to be but cannot reach. And, thus, maybe Welsh is him. Early in the film, Welsh tells Witt, “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing.” In the middle of the movie he asks Witt, “What difference you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?” Then late in the film Welsh asks Witt, “Still believing in the beautiful light, are you? How do you do that? You’re a magician to me.” Welsh, like Malick, views individual human lives as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And so while it’s tempting to assume that Malick, like Witt, believes in some glorious life beyond our human existence, perhaps he doesn’t, and thus perhaps Welsh best represents a fear in Malick that this is all there is. “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack,” Welsh says via narration in the film’s final minutes. “A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.” Welsh is aching to believe, and maybe Malick is, too. Maybe all his reverence for the natural world comes out of a feeling that it doesn’t get any better.
And I guess that brings us to The New World, a film that seems to be grappling with how man should make use of this place of ours. The film’s title has two meanings, referring first to the place where Colin Farrell’s John Smith and his fellow sailors establish Jamestown and then to the place from which they came, England, which is seen through the eyes of Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas (who is never called by that name and at that point is going by “Rebecca”). What’s interesting is that while Malick recognizes the arrival of Europeans in the New World as yet another “tear in the fabric of the natural world,” he isn’t dismissive of the civilization they left behind. When Pocahontas arrives in England, late in the film, she responds to it with the kind of awe that Malick has for the natural world, and Malick embraces that response, as if rediscovering his amazement for what humankind can do, as if recognizing that out of man’s destructive tendencies springs a different kind of beauty. The sense I get watching this film is that while Malick longs for the purity of the New World prior to the European infestation, he recognizes that mankind is ultimately incapable of remaining in that state. And for all the destruction that’s portrayed or implied here, The New World is ultimately optimistic about the nature of the human spirit. Am I right?
EH: I’m not sure the film as a whole is “optimistic,” exactly, though it does end on a note of the sublime after crossing some pretty dark territory. But there’s no doubt that, for a film about the European arrival in—and exploitation of—the New World of the Americas, it’s not entirely polemical about its subject. In the opening scenes, Malick captures the mutual awe of the Europeans seeing a new land for the first time and the natives who are impressed by the ships with their large white sails. The ships glide through the water into an inlet, glimpsed from the shore between the trees, harbingers of death and destruction much like the warship at the beginning of The Thin Red Line, but also a mystery and a wonder to the natives who have never seen anything like this before. For the natives, their awe is tinged with fear, with uncertainty and suspicion, afraid of this strange force entering their homeland but also attracted to it, unable to look away. For the Westerners, their awe is purely joyful, the joy of explorers discovering a new place, the joy of sailors who haven’t seen any land in months. Smith, in chains in the ship’s hold, glimpses the lush green land through small portals, and raises his manacled hands towards the sky, which is separated from him by the wooden grating above him.
Those opening scenes set the tone, in that this initial encounter between the Europeans and the natives is hopeful from both sides. The natives are warier, understandably—they have more to lose and more to fear—but both of these groups confront each other, at least in those wide-eyed first moments, with some measure of earnest interest. In a way, that only makes what happens subsequently so heartbreaking: the brutality, distrust and warfare that dominate relations between the Europeans and the natives in the future arise from this brief glimpse of a more hopeful possibility. As in The Thin Red Line, Malick is interested in the folly of human violence, as communication and attempts at mutual understanding give way to murder, displacement and manipulation.
JB: The difference, of course, between the violence of The Thin Red Line and that of The New World is that in the former we see planned warfare between two nations that more or less understand the purpose and ramifications of their actions and in the latter we see comparatively spontaneous violence between two cultures trying to figure it out as they go along.
The transcendentalist Malick may not have set out to make a chiefly historical picture, but I’m not sure The New World does anything better than it evokes this rare place and time when so much was new and uncertain. It starts with that landing at Virginia in 1607, with those three English ships approaching the shore to the breathless, cascading strains of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, as the camera hovers just above water level and sweeps around these almost impossibly small ships (you guys crossed the Atlantic in those!?) before Malick cuts to views from the shoreline, over the shoulders of the understandably mystified “naturals,” who have no way of knowing what the vessels are, where they came from or if they’re capable of coming ashore. It continues with a terrific little scene in which Raoul Trujillo’s Tomocomo cautiously rises from a hiding place in the bushes as he listens to the sound of trees being chopped in the forest—a disconcerting sound, even if it’s a familiar one. And then there’s the first face-to-face meeting in an open field: the English looking uncomfortable and nervous as the natives approach them with mostly confident curiosity.
And so it goes, until later in the film Wes Studi’s Opechancanough accompanies Pocahontas on her journey to England, carrying a handful of sticks onto which he plans to make notches for each white man he sees, eager to meet that God that the English are always talking about. The sight of English ships approaching Virginia years earlier is nothing compared to what Opechancanough encounters now, as he enters this highly evolved and settled world full of massive brick buildings, glass windows, stone streets and manicured gardens, etc. The New World may not be entirely devout in its historical authenticity—Pocahontas’s formfitting buckskin outfit is conveniently tailored to appeal to modern sexuality—but it does a far better job than most historical dramas when it comes to portraying the emotionality of its setting.
EH: Yeah, I think that’s true. The New World isn’t a faithful-to-every-detail historical drama, but it definitely gets the feelings right. The scenes of Opechancanough wandering around the Old World initially seem like a Malickian contrivance or invention; the effect of those short, wordless scenes is almost surreal, as this New World native in his simple clothing is confronted by the bustling culture and massive man-made cities of Europe. The concept is based on real events, though, right down to the wooden sticks which the native naïvely plans to use to count Englishmen. Malick shifts the events to a different character from reality for some reason, but otherwise he’s faithful to the spirit of the true story. And why not? This little anecdote is a near-perfect realization of this film’s theme of civilizations coming into contact for the first time, confronting each other with mingled awe and distrust.
Malick is capturing, with his usual transcendental aesthetic, not just what happened but how it felt—and how it felt from particular subjective points of view. As in The Thin Red Line, there are several narrators here, though not as many as in the earlier film. Instead, Malick provides only the internal narration of Pocahontas, John Smith and, later, Pocahontas’s husband John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The limited number of perspectives prevents the characters from melting into the surroundings as they often do in The Thin Red Line. The characters are still vehicles for Malick’s philosophy more than fully developed people in their own right—especially Pocahontas, whose voiceover is mostly a series of abstracted ruminations on love, nature, spirituality and mortality—but there’s a lot more to them than most of the individual soldiers in the previous film. Even beyond the voiceovers, subjectivity is a big part of the film, starting with those over-the-shoulder shots of the natives eyeing the approaching English ships. So many shots in the film are the visual equivalent of Malick’s love of characters narrating their thoughts: the imagery is implicitly skewed by the point of view of a character or characters.
JB: That’s true, but I think it best applies to the smaller supporting roles than to the three main characters. Malick, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, uses shots that evoke distance, caution, uncertainty or confusion when chronicling all those awkward periods of discovery and cohabitation, whether it’s showing the natives approaching the settlers’ early camps or the shot from the perspective of one of the Englishmen who, after watching a native stroll through their camp and pick up a tool as if it was his own, guns him down from behind—the first of many unfortunate acts of violence. In contrast, when Malick captures the three main characters, the shots seem less about subjective perspective than about pure emotion. The romance between Smith and Pocahontas is dominated by intimate closeups, often showing their faces in close proximity to one another or their hands on one another. It’s increasingly rare for them not to be captured in the same shot, as if they are indeed joined at the hip, to borrow the expression. This is quite different from the way Rolfe and Pocahontas are captured: Even when they’re in the same shot, the camera never hugs their bodies quite so tightly, and often they are captured in alternating shots, even when in the same physical space. On top of that, there are numerous shots that if not always taken from Rolfe’s first-person perspective manage to evoke it just the same: shots showing Rolfe watching Pocahontas from afar, clearly enchanted by her but also aware of the distance between them. The relationship between Rolfe and Pocahontas is sweet, caring and indeed genuine, but it’s worlds apart from the passion, aching and trembling rawness of the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, and while a good portion of that is conveyed through the performance of Kilcher, who subtly evokes her character’s swirling emotions, most of it is conveyed through the film’s compositions.
Of course, not to be overlooked is the impact of the score. Somehow we’ve made it this far with only passing references to Malick’s musical selections, which are so diverse and so consistently redolent that we could have an entire sidebar conversation on that topic alone. In Badlands, George Tipton’s original marimba-dominated score flows effortlessly into Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer, suggesting a kind of haunting whimsy that merges well with the violence and naïveté of the main characters. In Days of Heaven, Camille Saint-Saens’s The Aquarium, likewise, is both playful and dark, suggesting the thin (red?) line between heaven and hell that makes for the principal dramatic conflict of the film, while Leo Kottke’s acoustic guitar performance of the upbeat “Enderlin” captures the rambling spirit of the drifting laborers, leaving Ennio Morricone’s original score to fill in the gaps. In The Thin Red Line, Malick bookends the film with those Melanesian songs and mixes in Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” (a perfectly titled piece for a Malick film, no?) but relies mostly on Hans Zimmer’s magnificent original score, which Malick reportedly demanded to be in mostly finished form before shooting began, so as to inform the acting and cinematography. And then in The New World, James Horner’s typically self-derivative score gives us romance that’s both epic (“Pocahontas and Smith”) and intimate (“Rolfe Proposes”), with significant support on both counts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and Das Rheingold.
I struggle to think of another filmmaker who uses music with such care and purposefulness while also packing his soundtracks with ambient noise, whether it’s chirping crickets, buzzing cicadas, whizzing bullets or creaking ships. (As if in a nod to this, some of Horner’s pieces on the official soundtrack come complete with birdsong, as if the two cannot be separated.) To listen to the music of The New World is to feel that optimism for the human spirit that I mentioned earlier. The New World concludes with Piano Concerto No. 23, Horner’s love theme and Das Rheingold running into one another as Pocahontas has her tender goodbye with Smith, warmly embraces Rolfe, as if for the first time, and then celebrates her small immediate family in a sequence that suggests she finally knows her place in this much larger world. Das Rheingold carries us like a river through those final minutes, which show Pocahontas playing with her son in English gardens, accepting her death next to a tearful Rolfe and then running playfully through the garden on her own, turning a cartwheel, spinning around and wading into a small pond—all while wearing a proper English gown, yet showing a freeness of spirit that hadn’t been on display since very early in the film when she pranced through tall grass to mimic a deer. From there, Malick gives us another ship heading back toward Virginia, and rushing rivers and tall trees. Suggested here, both explicitly and symbolically, is the regenerative nature of the world, where death is a constant, but so is birth.
EH: I love your description of the ways in which Malick’s cinematography captures the emotions of the film’s two very different romances. That’s what I really meant by subjectivity. Malick’s shots don’t always evoke the literal first-person perspective, but they do always evoke what the characters are feeling. One of my favorite sequences in that regard is the way that Malick intensifies the disappointment that Smith feels upon being returned to his own people after spending a long time with the natives. The time that Smith spends with the natives, falling in love with Pocahontas and enjoying the company of her people, is an idyll much like the deserters’ holiday at the beginning of The Thin Red Line. Like Witt and Train’s stay in that island village, the constant threat of losing this pleasure hangs over everything. Smith knows, of course, that he can’t stay here indefinitely, as much as he’d like to. The scenery is lush and green, and Malick accompanies these scenes with typically romantic music and poetic voiceovers, further magnifying the sensation that Smith has found Eden—has found his Indies, which later he will regret having sailed past.
The heightened romanticism of these scenes then crashes jarringly against the moment when Smith returns to the English fort. When the doors of the fort are opened, Malick unveils a horrific scene of squalor and desolation that makes it seem like Smith has descended into Hell. The lush greens of the surrounding area are replaced by monochrome grays and browns, and the place seems to be on its way to becoming a ghost town, populated by gaunt zombies who stagger through the muddy, barren ground as though they haven’t eaten in weeks. Smith is almost immediately accosted by a gang of kids chattering at him in such heavily accented jargon that much of it is impossible to decipher, even though they’re speaking English. It’s a striking effect: Smith has spent so long among the native people that his own people now seem foreign, and even his own language is harsh and strange to his ears. Malick embodies Smith’s discombobulation in his stylization of the scene. Confronted with this frightening wasteland and these ugly, aggressive people, one immediately longs for the tranquility of the native village, just as Smith longs to be in Pocahontas’s arms, lounging in the grass with her once again.
This contrast between the English and the “naturals” is developed throughout the film. At one point, Smith says about the natives: “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.” It’s a particularly blatant expression of a familiar idea, the concept of the “noble savage” who is at peace with nature and who complements the more “advanced” and “civilized” cultures that might have lost touch with the natural communion that the savage experiences so intuitively. In a way, so many of Malick’s characters, in all of his films, are noble savages, people like Witt and Linda who are innocent of the modern world, who respond with open-mouthed ingenuousness to everything they encounter. The New World walks an especially fraught line, though, since the idea that the pre-colonial natives of the Americas were some kind of pure, idyllic society is an especially prevalent colonialist cliché. So my question for you is, does Malick regurgitate some of these clichés about the “noble savage” or is he merely presenting the perspective of John Smith, who does see the natives in such a rosy, paternalistic way?
JB: Good question. We’ve already acknowledged that the film isn’t a scathing commentary on the eradication of the Native American way of life (not to mention the eradication of Native American lives themselves), and considering that what we’re watching here is, historically speaking, the roots of a future genocide, I have no problem with anyone objecting to the picture on the grounds that it goes easy on the white-skinned invaders. Likewise, I think it’s fair to accuse The New World of relegating these Native American characters to “noble savage” roles in which their behavior, idyllic or violent, seems tied to a kind of childlike idiocy—as if the “naturals” are dumb in their trust and naïve in their aggression, foolishly believing they might have a fighting chance against the tsunami of gun-bearing white folk who will be traveling west for hundreds of years to come. I’m also fine with people feeling at least uncomfortable, and perhaps enraged, with a film that suggests that Pocahontas had her life in any way enriched thanks to the English. And I understand why someone would take offense that Pocahontas’s trip to England is portrayed as some kind of personal triumph, rather than as a disturbing traveling circus in which she plays the role of the dancing bear. So, sure, there’s plenty of room to take issue with the way this film adopts a rather simple, placid, elementary-school-textbook approach to this complex, turbulent and not entirely flattering period of our history.
But to answer your question: Although Malick looks away from controversial issues that I wish he’d wrestled with, yes, I think he does establish that what we’re seeing here is Smith’s perspective—a perspective that’s grounded in the actual Smith’s descriptions of these events. The best evidence is the scene in which Smith comes before Pocahontas’s father, the chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and believes that Pocahontas saves him from being executed: “At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me,” he says. The real Smith believed this is what happened to him, but many historians suspect that Smith was simply caught up in the middle of an elaborate ritual. Malick films the scene in such a way that, yes, Pocahontas intervenes, but seconds after she does Smith is surrounded by women from the tribe who seem to be going through ritualistic gestures. In that moment I think Malick establishes that Smith has a perhaps faulty view of what’s going on around him. Likewise, what Smith doesn’t know is that while he’s being welcomed into their company, the “naturals” around him are trying to decide just how long they’ll put up with the presence of the English before they strike. Smith believes them to be inherently peaceful, and he tells us so. But thanks to subtitles, we know otherwise. And the subsequent attack on the fort makes it obvious that the “naturals” have been in a fight before.
So while it’s true that The New World winds up perpetuating these stereotypes and clichés to some degree, I also see this film as documenting the start of the developed world’s fascination with the old Native American lifestyle, which was certainly different in appearance, if perhaps quite similar underneath.
EH: That’s pretty much how I feel. The film struggles with some obvious contradictions in its portrayal of the natives, but Malick at least seems aware of these tensions. That awareness has to be enough. To wish for a more substantial and complex treatment of these issues is to wish for a different film than the one Malick set out to make. Malick is pretty much the last director from whom I’d ever expect a real deep engagement with the politics and history of the colonization of the Americas and the genocides conducted against the continent’s natives. Malick doesn’t seem to have that kind of detailed historical narrative in him. His aesthetic is emotional and spiritual rather than cerebral, and if he were to get bogged down in a more complex examination of these kinds of ideas, I suspect it would detract from the dreamy aesthetic that his films are all built upon. He doesn’t have anything especially profound or insightful to say about the specific circumstances of the colonization of the Americas, and part of me thinks that’s a problem, perhaps even a big problem.
But another part of me recognizes that Malick is simply after something different. He’s interested in this specific moment in time because it’s such a potent realization of the confrontation between different cultures, as well as a rich opportunity to elaborate on his favorite theme, the relationship of humanity to nature. He’s an abstract thinker, and as a result his films can seem vague, and more than occasionally they get mired in lite-philosophy discourse. I’m of two minds about this tendency: on the one hand, yes, the ideas in Malick’s films tend to be simple, but on the other hand there’s an undeniable visceral and emotional intensity to his work that makes it very easy to be swept along in the grandeur of his aesthetic, to bask in his obvious rapture over images of the natural world and humanity’s uncertain place within in. This is especially apparent in The New World, which deals in abstract, general terms with humanity’s tendency towards distrust, betrayal and warfare, setting these ruminations in the context of a dual love story that’s as thematically and structurally important to the film as any of the English/native conflicts.
That’s telling, because Malick really privileges emotional experience over all else. The way love feels, the way it feels to lounge in the grass enjoying the breeze, being warmed by the sun. His films—and especially The New World, which is luscious even for him—don’t just present breathtaking images of natural beauty; they attempt to replicate what it would feel like to be a part of these landscapes, to luxuriate in the bristles of the tall grass, to be dwarfed by those trees that always seem to be reaching heroically toward the heavens, to gape before the majesty of a field that stretches endlessly towards the horizon. His films privilege the subjective over the objective, and the subjective feeling that he is intent on exploring, more than any other, is the feeling of being small and insignificant, a tiny cog in the complex machine of the world.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
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