Who is Terrence Malick and Will ‘Tree of Life’ Live Up Its Lofty Expectations?


I have a bone to pick with many of today’s films critics. Every time a director shows up at a film festival with a slow paced, meandering film critics of all stripes immediately compare that filmmaker to the legendary Terrence Malick, a filmmaker who is perhaps the most misunderstood of the last 50 years.

Sometimes the comparisons are obvious and actually make sense. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford did seem to be the bastard child of Badlands and Days of Heaven, but most of the time, as with recent efforts by New York filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and this year’s Sundance film Little Birds, the Malick reference seems tangential at best. It seems to simply be shorthand for a movie that is meandering in narrative and lugubriously paced.

This makes me wonder which Terrence Malick these critics are referencing. It certainly can’t be the man who penned the barely released early ’70s Paramount flick, Deadhead Miles or the studio hand who wrote the screenplay for Pocket Money featuring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. It can’t even be the young director who made 1973’s classic B-movie, Badlands, an independent film, shot quickly on a budget that moves and feels like many of the other B-movies from that period such as Richard Sarafian’s Lolly-Madonna XXX or Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop.

I also doubt these scribes are comparing a film like Reichardt’s recent Meek’s Cutoff to Malick’s big budget meditation on war, The Thin Red Line, with it’s A-List star turns and expensive battle recreations.

The locust swarm in Days of Heaven
Photo: Paramount Pictures

So who is this Terrence Malick the critics are referring to in their articles? The answer is that most people aren’t referring to Malick at all. They’re actually referring to his film Days of Heaven. Which is interesting because Days of Heaven is not a great film in my opinion.

I mean, it’s pretty to look at and all. With it’s sumptuous golden hour shots, impossibly beautiful young leads (Sam Shepard, Brooke Adams and Richard Gere), and the intoxicating voice over dialogue recited by youthful actress Linda Manz, it’s hard not to be taken in by the film. There just isn’t a lot that sticks after seeing it. I’ve seen Days of Heaven at least ten times (mostly on double bills with Badlands) and couldn’t for the life of me tell you what it’s about without going back and watching again. I don’t remember a single line from the film, either.

Martin Sheen in Badlands
Photo: Warner Bros.

Badlands, on the other hand, was etched in my brain from the first time I saw it. My friends and I used to act out lines from Badlands the way the characters in Diner recited lines from The Sweet Smell of Success. There was the scene where Kit Caruthers, played by Martin Sheen, kills Holly’s dad and leaves a record playing on the turntable as the house burns down. The scene where Kit shoots a football. The conclusion of the film where Kit gets interviewed by the press. A scene that is as timely today as it was then. I can list off a hundred scenes from Badlands and I haven’t watched the film in at least ten years. Days of Heaven, not so much.

I’m sure there are people who will disagree but for myself there aren’t any memorable scenes in Days of Heaven like there are in the great films of the ’70s. I’ve seen Shampoo maybe three times, but I clearly remember the dinner scene with Julie Christie and the scene where Warren Beatty races through the party on three back-to-back occasions. I can recite lines from all of the Godfather films, Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon. I can even recite lines from B flicks like Vanishing Point and Billy Jack.

I’m still looking forward to seeing Malick’s new film The Tree of Life. Not as much as I was looking forward to The Thin Red Line back in 1998. A stinker like Malick’s last film, The New World will make any film fan wary. And make no mistake, The New World was a stinker no matter what Roger Ebert had to say about it.

I will see it because I find Malick to be an interesting, if flawed, filmmaker and Badlands is still one of my favorite films. Plus I’ve seen everything else he’s been involved with including the aforementioned Deadhead Miles and Bear’s Kiss, the the Russian film he wrote with Sergei Bodrov, Sr. I just don’t know if the film will be any good. And I very much doubt it will have a lot in common with any of the festival filmmakers that have been compared to him.