In a scene in A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s latest film, a 1930s Austrian church artist laments his role in reinforcing Christian hypocrisy: “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo on his head … How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I’ll paint the true Christ.” These words echo the director’s own artistic concerns. While deeply spiritual and existential, Malick’s films are never comfortable. His rapturous cinematography is undercut by challenging editing structures, and even his most heroic characters struggle with morality, temptation, violence, and the loss of meaning. He is always trying to represent “the true Christ” — not a specific religious figure, but an ascendant state of being. Ahead of A Hidden Life’s theatrical release, the Museum of the Moving Image is running a comprehensive retrospective of his work, Moments of Grace: The Collected Terrence Malick. Surveying these films, Malick’s idiosyncratic techniques for depicting the cosmic become clear.
In Malick’s 1973 debut feature Badlands, a James Dean-esque delinquent seduces an impressionable suburban girl, and together they embark on a crime rampage which ends in lonely exile at the outer limits of the 1950s Midwest. The film inaugurates a key theme of Malick’s oeuvre, man’s cruelty as enveloped by the natural world, which both reflects his evil and looks on it in eerie indifference. In Days of Heaven (1978), a 1910s farm becomes engulfed in an inferno, and it’s suggested a purer world might arise from its ashes. In The Thin Red Line (1998), the paradisaical Guadalcanal becomes the stage for a minor apocalypse of a World War II battle. The island’s landscapes give shape to the characters’ hopes and fears, as its grandeur becomes a refuge that endures and outlives human infamy.
Voiceover famously colors much of Malick’s work. In his first films, characters narrate with regional accents that provide ironic narrative counterpoint. In Badlands, Sissy Spacek spins dry, folksy ruminations in a Southern lilt over horrific and quotidian events alike. In Days of Heaven, Linda Mantz’s wry, streetwise commentary proves her uneducated Chicagoan teenager more mature than the adults around her. Over the last two decades, Malick’s use of voiceover has become both exceedingly complex and heavily philosophical. In The Thin Red Line, The New World, and a recent loose trilogy — 2012’s To The Wonder, 2015’s Knight of Cups, and 2017’s Song to Song — multiple voiceovers collide and interweave as characters meditate on love, nature, and the soul.
Elliptical editing also contributes mightily to Malick’s evocation of stream of consciousness and associational memory. The New World (2005) is the apotheosis of this, telling the story of Pocahontas and John Smith as if one were truly encountering North America, if not the world, for the first time. Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush and earthy cinematography renders the ripe, verdant Virginia landscape as alternately Edenic and treacherous, and the fugue-like editing captures the disorientation of encountering unfamiliar sights, sounds, and entire civilizations. The film is so dense that Malick produced three distinct cuts of it, two of which will screen as part of Moments of Grace.
Perhaps his most ambitious and certainly his most autobiographical project, The Tree of Life (2011) adds a temporal dimension to his characters’ confrontation with the enigma of existence. In one audacious sequence, Malick halts the narrative action and charts the entire evolution of the Universe leading up to the protagonist’s birth. (His 2016 documentary Voyage of Time continues this macrocosmic interlude.) The film makes explicit the crushing vastness of geological time that was implicit in the overwhelming natural environments of his previous work, and does so through a ’50s suburban family drama. It’s as intimate in its subjective impressions of childhood as it is in mulling the loss of innocence and the grief of death.
Malick’s more recent “trilogy” of Wonder, Cups, and Song bring his meditations on romantic love and material success into the present day. He explores the rich visual textures offered by new cinematic tools, using cellphone cameras and focusing on electronic and digital lights, screens, and displays. The resulting visual abstraction complements narratives that are especially oblique and amorphous. Their overall effect is dreamy delirium, created by editing and cinematography that largely disregards spatial and temporal unity, with unconventional compositions and tracking shots furthering the exhilaration and confusion. With this new phase, Malick shows how unmoored the digital age has become from values that have traditionally provided meaning for our actions. Yet he also shows how advanced technology can aesthetically redeem this disconnect.
A Hidden Life is Malick’s most blatantly political work. The story is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, a rural Austrian who refused to fulfill his draft notice and swear loyalty to Hitler during World War II, his religious conviction leading to social ostracization and eventually execution. Malick depicts his mostly internalized conflict through narration, often in the form of letters between Jägerstätter and his wife Franziska. The film’s release in the context of dire contemporary political circumstances is likely not coincidental, with Malick reminding audiences of their own ethical responsibilities in a tumultuous period of rising nationalism and racism. It demonstrates how attuned Malick is to his time, even as his art aims for the timeless.