Terrence Malick. Have you ever heard of the guy? I hadn’t until a few months ago, as I took my first steps into the world of film blogs and film podcasts. But then on the other hand I heard it that much more.
I’m not sure of how big his fan club is in reality, but the members are certainly devoted, talking about Malick with the same respect and appreciation as others speak about Kubrick, Bergman and Kurosawa. Or actually even more. There is something almost religious about the worshipping, which I can’t recall seeing in connection to any other director.
Fan club or not – I haven’t seen much evidence of it in Sweden. The reviews of The Tree of Life were fairly mixed, scoring an average of 3,7/5 among the major film critics and it only played for a very short time.
Perhaps his reoccurring references to religion are a little bit too much to cope with for a more down-to-earth, predominately agnostic Swedish audience. Or maybe we don’t identify with the life at an American farm, another of his favorite themes. Either way – if you ask people in the street about Terrence Malick, you’ll to wait for long before finding someone who had any idea about who he is.
But in the film fan circles where I dwell, there are a lot of people whose opinions I care about who are fanatical Malick promoters, and for this reason I wanted to give him a proper chance.
As it turned out, I’ve been doing my Malick exploration backwards in time.
My first encounter was his newest movie, The Tree of Life, which might be the strangest, least accessible movie I’ve seen this year. There wasn’t much of a plot to hold on to, and there were some scenes that I yet don’t understand what they were about (various people walking around on a beach, what?). I almost fell asleep a couple of times due to the slow pace. However in the end I actually liked it – mainly thanks to the magnificent cinematography, picturing trees, galaxies and dinosaurs, accompanied by beautiful music and whispered poetry.
My next encounter was The New World, which I liked less than The Tree of Life. While very pretty and a real plot, it felt a little bit like shampoo advertising, with characters that felt a little bit stereotypical.
A normal story
Now I’ve come to my third venture into Malick territory. This time I took a huge step back in time with Days of Heaven from 1978. And as I’m getting back from this expedition, I’m glad to report that I finally have seen a Malick movie that I don’t have a lot of reservations about.
Unlike The Tree of Life, this one had a perfectly normal story. A farm laborer (played by a very young Richard Gere) convinces his girl friend to marry their rich boss, since they expect him to die soon, with the idea that they could get access to his fortune. But unfortunately for them he doesn’t die. Love starts to grow, but so does jealousy.
It’s a simple, but it’s enough to grab my interest, and the characters are at least a little bit complex, which makes me care more about them. There’s a line in the voiceover that especially stuck with me:
“Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.” This isn’t only true; it’s also what I want from a movie to be believable.
This said, as in every other Malick movie I’ve seen, it was the cinematography which stood out most. It’s beautiful, to say the least. Unfortunately I only watched this on a small screen – not even a TV, since my library copy was scratched and only would play in my computer. But also under those circumstances I enjoyed the views of the open landscape bathing in the late summer afternoon sun or the close-ups of grasshoppers invading a field or the sight of a roaring, uncontrollable fire, perfectly illustrating the emotional state of some of the characters. As I googled for a screenshot to illustrate my blog post about this movie I had a hard time to choose which one to pick. There were just too many of them.
Epic and timeless
Epic and timeless, that’s how I’d like to describe Days of Heaven. And yet it’s actually remarkably short. I looked with disbelief at my watch realizing that it wasn’t more than 1 hr 30 minutes. I don’t know how Malick manages to get so much said and done in so little time, without ever making anything feel rushed or too compressed. But I have to admire him for it.
For anyone who is where I was a few months ago – with zero knowledge about Malick, but with a willingness to try – I think Days of Heaven is a much better place to start than The Tree of Life. It is straight forward, well crafted and never intimidating or boring. No whispering. No dreamlike sequences. A solid walk forward along an easily distinguishable timeline.
Personally I still haven’t bought a membership card in Malick’s fanclub. But I appreciate him more after watching Days of Heaven, so much that I’m likely to continue my journey through his works.
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, US, 1978) My rating: 4,5/5