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Up From The Badlands

January 20, 2006 — Terence Malick Published originally in The New York Sun

Legends that appear only rarely need to make sure that when they do so, it’s special. Halley’s comet pulls this off. Barbra Streisand does not. The brilliant but reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick falls somewhere in between. Since first attracting attention with his debut feature, the spare and unsettling “Badlands” (1973), the enigmatic Mr. Malick has developed a reputation as a director of genius that, remarkably, rests on just four films, each of which divided critics and, assuming (as seems likely) “The New World” goes the same way, disappointed at the box office.You can see the whole lot in less time than it takes for Frodo finally to throw away that wretched ring: A full Malick retrospective could be finished in less than a day.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is taking a more leisurely approach. Its “Month of Malick” began January 18 and will last until February 1. It includes the key elements in the canon – “Badlands,””Days of Heaven” (1978),”The Thin Red Line” (1998), and “The New World” (2005) – as well as, for completists only, “Pocket Money”(1972),a piece of dreary 1970s picaresque for which Mr. Malick wrote the script, and Carole King, God help us, the theme song. Don’t bother with “Pocket Money,” but any of the others is enough to prove that Mr. Malick’s is a unique talent, while two of them, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” are unquestionably the product of an extraordinary vision that has rarely been matched in American or, indeed, any cinema.

To be sure, a good part of the Malick mystique stems from a rambling,eccentric resume almost guaranteed to generate the label of genius. Start with the fact that his first work was an English translation of Heidegger’s “Vom Wesen des Grundes” (Mr. Malick studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford and taught at M.I.T.) published by Northwestern University Press, throw in the 20 years of silence, Paris, rumor, and abandoned projects that followed “Days of Heaven,” add a reluctance to give interviews, be photographed, or disclose very much about himself, and it’s no surprise that comparisons with J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon (actually, any hermit icon will do) were quick to be made.

The notion of Mr. Malick as a man apart is only reinforced by the way in which his movies so often maintain an emotional distance from their subjects. In “Badlands,” his masterpiece, a film loosely inspired by Charles Starkweather, Caril Ann Fugate, and their Eisenhower-era killing spree, there is no judgment and little passion, just unblinking, meticulous observation as bleak, unyielding, and remorseless as the landscape in which it is shot.

Its deadly, deadpan protagonists, Kit (Martin Sheen, never better) and his young girlfriend, spooky, strange Holly (Sissy Spacek, weirder by far than in “Carrie”) reveal little about themselves, not that there is a great deal to reveal. Our own involvement in their fate is further limited by the use Mr. Malick makes of voice-over (something heard in all his movies) to tell their story, another device that reminds us that we are not there in the badlands: We are just part of an audience, spectators, nothing more.

This sense of detachment continued into “Days of Heaven,” a love triangle set amid the wheat fields of early-20th-century Texas. Once again framed (and held at a distance) by the words of a narrator, this time in the haunting, scratchy voice of a disconcerting urchin (Linda Manz) from the slums of Chicago, the story unfolds against the astonishing, gorgeously shot landscapes that are the director’s trademark. But, just as typically for Mr. Malick, these also serve to underline the grubbiness and insignificance of the human drama that transpires. We may be gripped by the doomed relationship between Bill (Richard Gere), Abby (Brooke Adams),and “the farmer”(tellingly, this character, played by Sam Shepard, is never even given a name), but in the greater scheme of things, their tragedy counts for nothing.

Judging by “The Thin Red Line,” the beautiful, intriguing, but ultimately absurd movie that marked the director’s long-awaited comeback, not much changed for Mr. Malick in those two intervening decades. As usual, his film looks lovely (even if it occasionally topples over into Sierra Club kitsch), but its protagonists have to take a distant third place behind first-rate cinematography and fourthrate philosophizing.

With the exception of a ravaged, raging lieutenant colonel (Nick Nolte) and the saintly, selfsacrificing Private Witt (Jim Caviezel, limbering up to be Jesus), the members of the cast are barely differentiated and serve largely as examples of certain stock types: the cynic, the softie, and so on. Still, they shouldn’t be offended. Even World War II (the film is set during the battle for Guadalcanal) is reduced to a generic conflict, little more really than a platform for Mr. Malick’s musings on war (he’s against),mankind (not a fan), and the meaning of life itself (quoting Witt’s maudlin speculation about whether “all men got one big soul” is as much as I can stomach writing down, but it tells you all you need to know).

In one respect, at least, on this occasion Mr. Malick qualifies his general misanthropy with the rather biblical suggestion that we are a fallen species instead of one that was bad from the beginning. Early in the movie, Guadalcanal’s native inhabitants are shown living harmonious (literally, there’s a lot of singing), happy, unspoiled lives in marked contrast to the brutish, supposedly civilized men who descend upon them and then proceed to wreck Eden. In essence, this is also the theme (along with yet more dollops of the reheated transcendentalism that casts its sickly pall over “The Thin Red Line”) at the heart of “The New World,” Mr. Malick’s latest film.

This muddled but sometimes mesmerizing movie is far more evenhanded in its treatment of Jamestown’s English settlers than some critics have suggested, but its highly romanticized depiction of an American Indian culture that is all Rousseau and no Hobbes again shows Mr. Malick to be a director too ready to abandon subtlety for cheesy hippie didacticism. That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Far from it (among other achievements, Mr. Malick has coaxed surprisingly touching performances out of both Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas and Christian Bale as the man she ultimately marries).

But it would have been a much, much better movie had Mr. Malick been able to abandon his fantasy of an Eden that never was: Humanity lives in the badlands. Always has. Always will. And we need Mr. Malick back there with us to show how it’s going to be.