There are few filmmakers who can lay a legitimate claim to being one of the great American poets, but Terrence Malick is one of them. The reclusive director has made a career out of elegiac dramas about love, death, nature, faith and the interconnectivity of all things, using eye-popping cinematography and unconventional editing techniques to turn the experiences of a few into stories that connect to everybody. When his films are great, they are among the very greatest films. When they falter, no matter his good intentions, they can be insufferable. Let’s look over Malick’s narrative feature films to explore his predilections, his unique style, and his occasional missteps.
9. "Knight of Cups" (2015)
The best Terrence Malick movies look like they are capturing important moments that would otherwise be lost to time. The worst Terrence Malick movie, “Knight of Cups,” looks like a bunch of actors trying to make that magic happen, failing and just wandering around and making strange gestures instead. Christian Bale stars as a Hollywood screenwriter who’s lost his soul to shallow entertainment industry dealings and unfulfilling relationships, but getting lost inside the mind of an aimless husk of a character isn’t nearly as riveting as the filmmaker thinks it is.
8. "Song to Song" (2017)
Like “Knight of Cups,” “Song to Song” is a project that was filmed without a conventional screenplay. It shows, but at least this film revolves around a series of tangible relationships, against the livelier backdrop of the music industry. Rooney Mara falls for both Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender -- a musician and his manager, respectively -- and their relationships crumble. Natalie Portman is here too, but the real selling point is Emmanuel Lubezki’s lovely cinematography and the all-too-brief scene where Val Kilmer takes a chainsaw to an amp for no good reason.
7. "To the Wonder" (2012)
Ambitious and largely unappreciated, “To the Wonder” is Malick’s attempt to capture the ethereality of love itself on camera. He nearly succeeds. Malick takes an earnest melodrama, about a married couple falling out of love and into the arms of others, and strips away all the artifice. In its place he leaves the tiniest moments, the fleeting memories, the most universal sensations. Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams do a fine job exemplifying Malick’s poetic ideals in a film that uses the same storytelling techniques he perfected in “The Tree of Life,” and to nearly as great effect.
6. "The New World" (2005)
Malick’s ongoing fascination with nature, and its catastrophic interactions with humanity, has a nearly perfect backdrop in “The New World.” Colin Farrell stars as John Smith, who arrives in at Plymouth Rock and finds something more profound in the untainted land and its original inhabitants, specifically Pocahontas, played exceptionally by Q’orianka Kilcher. Lush and intoxicating and tragic, “The New World” is an incredible experience, unlike any of the other cinematic narratives woven about the forging of what would become an American civilization.
5. "A Hidden Life" (2019)
When Malick can stay focused, there are very few filmmakers who can match his insight into the human soul. “A Hidden Life” tells the story of an Austrian farmer played by August Diehl, who refuses to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler when he’s called into service during World War II. No matter how much easier his life would become, no matter how many excuses his alleged moral superiors offer him, he won’t betray his conscience. Uncomplicated in plot but with almost incalculable moral depth, “A Hidden Life” is a profoundly pointed and relevant work.
4. "The Thin Red Line" (1998)
A very different story about World War II, with just as many questions about the human experience to ask, and even more riveting characters and experiences to capture. “The Thin Red Line” tells the story of the Guadalcanal Campaign, in which a disparate group of American soldiers find themselves at moral crossroads unique to each individual. The cast is sprawling, but Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Dash Mihok and Jim Caviezel take center stage as men pressed to the edge of their spiritual endurance by a conflict that rips humanity and its environment to shreds.
3. "Badlands" (1973)
Malick’s first feature is among the most potent and assured directorial debuts on record. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play young lovers who murder her disapproving father, then go on the lam to be free and, when necessary, commit more heinous crimes. Malick depicts his young lovers, based on real-life criminals Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, not as homicidal maniacs but as dreamy-eyed children who have no greater concept of their actions, only drifting from town to town and experience to experience, until one of them starts to wake up. With its instantly iconic, oft-imitated musical score, “Badlands” is a haunting portrayal of dreamers turned hazily nightmarish.
2. "The Tree of Life" (2011)
The connection between a man’s childhood, his unknowable future and the creation of the universe itself intertwine in Malick’s most mindbogglingly expansive narrative feature. “The Tree of Life” stars Sean Penn, whose memory of his abusive father, played by Brad Pitt, and his angelic mother, played by Jessica Chastain, take the exact form of memory -- disjointed at the start of his existence, sometimes inexplicable, and then gradually coalescing into a distinct storyline that’s fascinatingly specific and, simultaneously, completely universal. To watch “The Tree of Life” is to walk inside another human being’s mind, wander through their whole existence, and emerge enlightened.
1. "Days of Heaven" (1978)
Malick’s greatest triumph marries his great fascinations -- subjective experience, mankind’s complex relationship with nature, love at its most profound and violence at its most unnatural -- with an astoundingly absorbing narrative. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are day-laborers and lovers who pretend to be siblings to avoid scandal during the Great Depression. When they start working for a wealthy but dying farmer, played by Sam Shepard, they agree to con him into marriage so they can inherit his estate. But love gives the farmer a reason to live, and now they are trapped in a clandestine affair which can only end in tragedy. Uncannily photographed (by Néstor Almendros) and captivating at every turn, “Days of Heaven” is one of the great American films.