There comes a moment, nearly three-quarters through the abysmally dull and bizarre Deadhead Miles—starring Alan Arkin as a long-haul truck driver—where Arkin takes another driver aside to show him something in his cab. Curious, the driver peers into the truck and sees that Arkin has crudely grafted a doll’s head onto his gearshift. The friend is confused, perplexed, and slightly disgusted. To which Arkin replies: “You see, the world’s bigger than you think.”
What business does a line this good have in a movie this bad? For starters, it has nothing to do with the movie in which it is said and everything to do with the man who wrote it: Terrence Malick. And though Deadhead Miles has been forgotten, Malick hasn’t. Especially since the other movie release in 1973 bearing his name was his first as director: Badlands, a film David Thomson called “the most assured first film by an American since Citizen Kane.”
Fewer words describe the cinema of Malick quite as poignantly as assured. Yes, his movies meander this way and that, but always with purpose, always with a goal. In a way, they resemble their creator. Born in Illinois in 1943, raised in Texas and Oklahoma, and educated at Harvard and Oxford, Malick was a Rhodes Scholar, a philosophy teacher, and a freelance journalist, all before enrolling in the American Film Institute’s inaugural class of 1969.
At AFI, Malick met Jack Fisk, a production designer who has worked on every Malick production since (to whom a great deal of the films’ successes is owed) and discovered that all his passions could be brought under the umbrellas of cinema. He could build entire worlds, witness history’s most significant events, and, to borrow a phrase from William Blake, “see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.”
Filmed primarily in Colorado and based loosely on the 1957-58 Charles Starkweather murder-rampage along the Midwest, Badlands is as loose as it is composed—like a French New Wave film wrapped around a painting of the American West. It uses the classic American narrative of lovers on the run to explore both the psychology of a killer and the woman enchanted by him.
Malick’s approach to interiority is unusual, but it is effective, particularly with 1978’s Days of Heaven, a movie that just might be one of the most beautiful films ever shot.
Set in the early 20th century, Days is Malick’s first cinematic crack at a biblical story, complete with an Eden, a love triangle, and locusts, all observed and commented on by a young girl (Linda Manz), who provides the requisite Malickian voice-over.
The use of voice-over, specifically how it morphs from memory (Badlands) to allegory (Days of Heaven) to omniscience (The Thin Red Line and The New World) to prayer (The Tree of Life), is by far one of Malick’s most recognizable traits. It works best in 1998’s The Thin Red Line, a movie set in World War II and based on the James Jones novel of the same name. Though the stunt casting of stars—which were needed to help finance the film—can be at times distracting, Malick’s use of multiple players and multiple voice-overs gives the movie a feeling of angelic euphoria.
Twenty years marked the space between Malick’s second and third film, but only six would take him from Line to 2005’s The New World, a reimagining of the John Smith (Colin Farrel) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) tale.
The New World marks the first time Malick teamed with cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki, who has shot every Malick film since. Together the two developed a style of filming, one that is simultaneously ethereal and grounded. Together, they would push the boundaries of this cinematic style to new heights with 2011’s The Tree of Life, a masterpiece that defies expectation and explanation.
No list of significant American filmmakers is complete without the inclusion of Terrence Malick; his achievements cannot be overstated. The world’s bigger than you think.
Stream Badlands on HBO Max, Days of Heaven on The Criterion Channel or Kanopy, The Thin Red Line on DirecTV, and The New World on Tubi; The Tree of Life is available to rent via Video on Demand. All movie stills courtesy The Criterion Collection. A version of this article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 32, “The world’s bigger than you think.“