The Beautiful Light: A Contemplation Of Terrence Malick

The Beautiful Light: A Contemplation Of Terrence Malick

The underappreciated genius of a filmmaker who focuses on faith.
Benjamin Kerstein
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It was, I think, the fifth or sixth time I watched The Thin Red Line, precisely at the moment when the sound of a gunshot marks both the death of John Caviezel’s Private Witt and a smash cut to the character diving into the clear waters of Guadalcanal, surrounded by smiling native children, that I realized all of Terrence Malick’s films are about God.

Precisely why it took me so long to realize this remains something of a mystery; though I imagine being Jewish, and thus lacking an extensive knowledge of Christian imagery, is the most likely reason. But as is often the case, having realized it, it became simply impossible to view any of Malick’s films without his theological concerns immediately apparent. So much so that it soon appeared to constitute the essence of his cinema. Indeed, with the possible exception of Martin Scorsese, Malick may be the only religious filmmaker working today, and certainly the most explicit.

Malick, of course, has always been an anomaly. His style and career are both genuinely unique. Although his work shows occasional similarities to the films of Antonioni, Ophuls, and Kubrick, Malick has perfected a cinema that eludes all imitators, one that many critics have called “transcendent,” but might more accurately be called elliptical, evocative, and esoteric. In effect, Malick is one of the few genuine mystics of cinema.

For years, however, this cinema was considered a closed book, and its maker one of the greatest and most inscrutable tragedies of the 1970s New Hollywood era. His first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, became almost instant classics, promising a dazzling career to come. But Malick went silent, disappearing into obscurity and presumed lost to cinema. In the late 1990s, however, he came roaring back. Working at a relatively furious pace, he has outdone such comebacks as those of Polanski and Altman.

The Thin Red Line, The New World, Tree of Life, and To the Wonder have not been universally acclaimed, but they are fascinatingly consistent with Malick’s ‘70s work. Unique and remarkable, they all display a clear and steady development of Malick’s style and thematic interests. Indeed, Malick today seems less an inscrutable anomaly than an artist who made a conscious decision to sit out the ‘80s and early ‘90s, an era in which his brand of cinema was unpopular and supremely difficult to finance.

Malick is equally unusual as a personality. The ‘70s were the era of the director as superstar, but Malick—as he does today—refused publicity, was rarely photographed or interviewed, and almost never appeared in public. And unlike most of his contemporaries, such as Spielberg and Lucas—and today, Quentin Tarantino—whose artistic knowledge appeared limited entirely to the realms of film and television, Malick is supremely well-educated, with diverse intellectual interests, particularly philosophy, famously translating Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons into English. Indeed, he is reputed to have once said to Martin Sheen, “There’s a lot more to life than making movies,” perhaps the reason he works at a slower pace and with greater deliberation than most of peers. Malick, in short, unlike so many contemporary artists, usually waits until he has something to say before he says it.

And what he has to say tends to be significant. As a critic once said of the novelist Michel Houellebecq, Malick “hunts big game.” His films deal with fundamental questions of human existence. They contemplate such vast subjects as the Oedipal romance, the fall of man, the creation of the Earth, the problem of evil, the nature of human and divine love, and the eternal struggle between man and the natural world. More than anything else, however, they are about God and the silence of God.

A War At The Heart Of Nature

Malick’s debut film, Badlands, is the only one around which an absolute critical consensus exists; which is to say, it is universally acclaimed, likely because it is his most stylistically accessible. Based on a true story, Badlands is the anti-Bonnie and Clyde, telling the dark tale of a murderous rampage by two teenagers who appear to be in love for no particular reason. Lacking any of the irreverence and cathartic violence of other lovers-on-a-crime-spree films, it is marked by a disconcerting lack of affect, one that seems matched by the banality of the film’s Midwestern settings—the “badlands” of the title—which appear to stretch on forever in perfect and silent emptiness. It is a portrayal of a soulless place populated by equally soulless people. Indeed, it seems, at times, as if Martin Sheen’s Kit kills people because he can’t think of anything better to do, and Sissy Spacek’s Holly goes along with it for largely the same reason. It is, in short, Malick’s evocation of the silence of God.

The director’s second film, Days of Heaven, his last for nearly two decades, is in many ways the opposite of Badlands. Portraying a deeply passionate love triangle between two Depression-era drifters and a wealthy farmer, it is set amidst the same Midwestern topography as Badlands. But these landscapes are no longer barren; they teem with golden light and unremitting fertility. Where the imagery of Badlands often has a refined and deliberate ugliness, Days of Heaven—thanks to the now-legendary work of cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler—is possessed of what can only be described as a nearly impossible beauty. Its characters are equally vibrant, given to flights of operatic emotion that, while presented in an understated manner, are the opposite of the persistent deadness of Kit and Holly. From the plants and animals that form its backdrop to the characters who play out upon its canvas, Days of Heaven is furiously alive.

The film also marks the first time explicitly religious themes begin to emerge in Malick’s work. The film’s Biblical resonances have been noted before: Lovers Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister, much as Abraham and Sarah do in the book of Genesis; their surrogate daughter, the precocious Linda, delivers a lengthy voiceover oration on the apocalyptic end of the world; a plague of locusts descends upon a once-peaceful farm, resulting in an inferno of fire and brimstone that wipes out a paradise that has now become corrupted by the sins of envy and deception.

This theme of a lost paradise, destroyed by a fire this time, forms the primary theme of Malick’s next film, as if the almost 20 years that passed before The Thin Red Line simply never happened. Both Malick’s most and least religious film, The Thin Red Line is half a war film and half an extended meditation on such weighty concepts as nature, sin, violence, redemption, compassion, and existential solitude.

Weaving together the bloody World War II battle for Guadalcanal with transcendent imagery of the island as a peaceful tropical paradise, Malick creates a swirling kaleidoscope of discordant images. In addition, a multi-character voiceover as a species of Greek chorus, bearing witness to both the carnage and the peaceful beauty in which it takes place with—depending on the viewer—some of the most evocative or pretentious dialogue ever put on screen. “Where is it that we were together?” muses one voice. “Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness. Light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”

Who this hidden “face” belongs to is clear enough: A quasi-pantheistic deity who may encompass or embody both good and evil; the source of the endless contention of existence, harboring an answer to the question posed in the film’s opening line: “What’s this war at the heart of nature?”

The film’s seeker after God’s hidden face is Private Witt, a Christ symbol played by the actor who eventually played the most famous cinematic Christ of the 21st century. Jim Caviezel, himself a deeply religious Christian, has effectively played the role of Jesus twice, explicitly in The Passion of the Christ and symbolically in The Thin Red Line.

Tellingly, the character of Witt is almost entirely of Malick’s creation. In James Jones’ original book, Witt is an angry and violent character. In the film, he is a creature of pure spirit, a compassionate healer who traverses the arena of battle seemingly immune to its horrors. His periodic clashes with the ferociously cynical Sergeant Welsh—played by Sean Penn playing himself—are among the most powerful moments in any American war film, culminating in a beautiful (and largely improvised) scene in which Welsh asks if Witt is “still believing in that beautiful light,” to which Witt responds with a look that can only be described as beatific before saying, “I still see a spark in you.”

And through Witt’s self-sacrificing death, he makes paradise real, plunging into the blue waters of a paradise restored and created for the first time. “Oh, my soul,” intones the film’s final line. “Let me be with you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

Not much shines, however, in the long-planned and long-delayed The New World, which took several decades and seven years after The Thin Red Line to emerge. It takes the theme of the lost paradise to the most depressing extreme in all of Malick’s cinema, portraying the story of Pocahontas and John Smith in a manner that annihilates all nostalgia and mythology.

It is also the most pantheistic of Malick’s films, portraying a rapturous and divine nature perfectly contrasted to the violence and depredation of a fallen humanity. These depredations are the work of both civilizations portrayed in the film—that of the English settlers and the Native Americans they encounter. Indeed, one of the film’s greatest strengths is that, in its lack of sentimentality, similar to that of Badlands, it dispenses with the clichés of the noble savage and the evil colonist, as well as the equally clichéd barbaric savage and noble colonist. It fearlessly upends both mythological and politically correct expectations by showing both civilizations beset by politics, violence, and material concerns.

The film’s love story, such as it is, takes shape around the only two characters—Smith and Pocahontas—who are deeply connected to the world of divine nature. In portraying this contrast, Malick does not appear to take sides. In fact, one could easily read the film as an essentially ironic comment on the impossibility of true communion with the pantheistic God. By the end of the film, the search for this communion has become a searing tragedy, as the naïve attachment to the natural world proves the undoing of both lovers.

The Tree Of Life


Nonetheless, the divinity of the natural world or, at least, its prodigious use as a metaphor for the divine, continued to obsess Malick; to the extent that it provides the most striking sequence in Tree of Life. Both Malick’s most stylistically unusual and widely acclaimed recent film, Tree of Life took the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival and achieved a degree of mainstream success almost unthinkable for a work so self-consciously ambiguous and abstract.

But Tree of Life also represents the consummation and the end of Malick’s contemplation of pantheism. Indeed, it is a self-consciously monotheistic film, ultimately siding in the clearest way with a fundamentally Christian worldview. Beginning with a quotation from the book of Job—“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”—it employs, in its most striking sequence, a portrayal of the creation of the Earth, from the Big Bang through the emergence of life, ultimately ending with what is hinted to be the world’s inevitable demise.

All of this seems to be a clear allegory of divine creation (a setting of the Requiem mass plays over much of the imagery), which eventually merges with a vision of creation in microcosm: The birth and life of a human being and his family. Bringing creation down to the specific imbues the film with a sense of communion between the human and the divine. One in which the natural world embodies the work of an unknowable creator who is, by the end, conclusively revealed as the Christian God—most explicitly in the climactic moment when the mother reaches up through a halo of light and says, “I give you my son.” The “you” is, of course, singular, suggesting a personal God who is beyond the material world and can be touched through the human capacity for spiritual transcendence—in this case, through the son who is given.

This theme is further developed in Malick’s most recent film, To the Wonder, an equally abstract contemplation of human and divine love. Human love is portrayed through the prolonged but ultimately doomed affair between Neil, an American man, and Marina, a Frenchwoman. Divine love is reflected in the stories of a troubled Catholic priest and Jane, a believing Christian who briefly cleaves to Neil before being rejected in favor of Marina.

In a sense, the film is also, like The Thin Red Line, a confrontation with the problem of evil. The love between Neil and Marina is clearly real, but comes to nothing; while Jane’s love for Neil is deeply passionate and ultimately rejected. “What we had,” she tells Neil, “you turned it into nothing.” The priest, for his part, is a deeply troubled man, his faith shaken by the corruptions of the material world and the sight of the physically and emotionally damaged human beings to whom he ministers. “The one who loves less is the stronger,” he says of human relationships, and his relationship to God appears to be similar. Yet, by the end of the film, his doubts seem to have been at least somewhat ameliorated by his acts of charity; while there are also hints that both Neil and Marina have achieved some kind of serenity. In short, To the Wonder appears to posit the possibility of human love through the connection to divine love, and vice-versa.

The Battleground

Through Malick’s recent work, we are finally beginning to see the emergence of something like an oeuvre, one that reveals an artist of a remarkably particular kind. “Film is like a battleground,” says Sam Fuller in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. “There’s love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.” All of these things exist, of course, in the films of Terrence Malick. But they also contain providence, communion, transcendence, redemption, and grace. Malick has somehow succeeded in using the most cumbersome and commercial medium imaginable in order to engage in a prolonged artistic contemplation of the relationship between the human and the divine. Malick has emerged, in short, as perhaps the most blatantly religious artist of the early 21st century. His art embraces the elemental questions of Western theology: Being and not being, sin and purity, God and the silence of God.

That he can evoke all of this without preachment or platitude is both to his credit as an artist and the secret, perhaps, of his inscrutable longevity. Despite making films that, given critical and commercial realities, should not exist, he has managed to touch something essential in his audience; his films are gentle, but they inspire in the viewer a rapturous intensity. It may be that, in a media landscape so often defined by the debased and declamatory, Malick represents the existence of and continued hope for the beautiful light—all things shining.

Benjamin Kerstein is a Tel-Aviv based writer, editor, and novelist.

Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer, editor, and novelist.

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