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Feature: Lifting the veil on Terrence Malick

A man of few words, Terrence Malick cuts a reclusive shape in the veiled shadows of Hollywood’s dazzling limelight. The word “reclusive”, however, may appear to be an understatement for a man of whom it is believed barely any, and mostly dated, photographs exist. Not only that, but he almost never gives interviews, not even to promote his films. Nevertheless, his quietness and notably long periods of mysterious absence seem to have elevated him to a godlike status in film-making circles, with fellow professionals desperate to get close to him.

What tales do emerge about Malick, paint a portrait of an unmatched talent encumbered by a burly eccentric streak and obsessive secrecy. As a passionate and conscientious student at Harvard, he studied philosophy, specialising in Heidegger – whose work is thought to have a strong influence in his films. Upon graduating Malick also spent time studying at Oxford University, but is thought to have left before completing his studies. He later worked as a teacher and a journalist before moving into film where he would ultimately make a name for himself.

Malick is undoubtedly elusive by nature. His films, on the other hand, speak boundlessly and spoil us undeservedly with magical imagery and impossibly absorbing story telling. Where other films have acquired fans, Malick’s attain disciples. Yet in nearly 30 years the critically acclaimed mastermind has directed just five films, culminating with The Tree of Life – due for its much anticipated UK release on July 8th.


Badlands (1973)

Malick began his illustrious career as a screenplay writer. However when one of his screen plays was made into what Paramount felt to be an ‘unrealisable’ film, Malick decided that he must direct his own scripts. Starring the highly commended Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Badlands introduced Malick onto the scene as a serious talent, in the auteur mould.

The fictional story of Badlands is a loosely based dramatisation of the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of the 1950’s. The plot charts the exploits of a young girl and her boyfriend as they commit a string of seemingly random yet hideously violent murders across the American state of South Dakota. Upon release the film was lauded for its intriguing narrative and astounding cinematography. The sheer mass of raving critics led to Warner Bros purchasing the distribution rights for three times the movies budget.

Days of Heaven (1978)

After the huge success of film, Malick set about the release of his second. However, as his personality so blatantly projects, he was in no rush. In fact, Days of Heaven spent two years in post production while the curious and innovative Malick and his crew experimented with unconventional editing and voice over techniques.

Finally, in 1978, the film was released. Circled around an evolving live triangle on a Texan farm in the early 20th century, Days of Heaven also had a top billed cast, including Richard Gere and Brook Adams. A series of unfortunate events unfold, as illustrated by a gripping narrative; a technique which Malick has become known to exploit in almost all of his films. Another beautiful and resounding success the film won the Oscar for best cinematography and Malick himself won best director at the 1979 Cannes Festival.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

After the Oscar-winning Days of Heaven came out in 1978, Malick disappeared from the film world for some 20 years, not re-emerging until The Thin Red Line came out in 1998. Even the reasons behind his disappearance from film remain a mystery and his elusiveness has had the effect of only adding to his allure. Eccentrically, in his contract for directing his third film, he stated that no current pictures of him could be published or shown anywhere.

With a large ensemble of acclaimed stars, The Thin Red Line was loosely based on James Jones World War II novel of the same name. Focused specifically on the battle of Guadalcanal, the film explored how the horrors of war forced a group of young soldiers into a tight-knit group developing resilient bonds of love and family. Unsurprisingly the film received much critical acclaim and was nominated for numerous awards.

The New World (2005)

Recently hailed as one of the best films of this decade, The New World used over a million feet of film, with three different versions, of varying length, released. Malick began writing the screenplay for this film in the 1970s but was only given the opportunity to produce it after funding for another film fell through.

The New World features a romantic and vibrant interpretation of the eminent story of John Smith and Pocahontas. Akin to all of Malick’s previous pieces of work it was a period piece set in America; a winning formula that he seems wildly reluctant to discard. Despite receiving mixed reviews during its theatrical run, it was still nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography.


The Tree of Life (2011)

The latest of Malick’s instalments is just as highly anticipated as his previous work, perhaps even more so. Rumours suggest that he began writing the screenplay immediately after the release of Days of Heaven, the results of which present an intricate script coupled with beautiful and awe-inspiring imagery.

A trademark Malick masterpiece, The Tree of Life is an impressionistic story of a 1950’s Midwestern family, following the life journey of the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). It premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it won the coveted Palme d’Or.

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The Tree of Life is due for its much anticipated UK release on July 8th.


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