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Photo: Fox Searchlight, Graphic: Libby McGuire

When Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life was released to great acclaim back in 2011, new work from the revered Texas filmmaker was still a rare treat. He never made movies at the same pace as his New Hollywood peers in the ’70s, and even with a slight uptick in productivity following the 20-year break between Days Of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line in 1998, Malick was still averaging approximately one movie per decade. With Tree Of Life, which felt in so many ways like the film Malick had been working toward for nearly 40 years, it seemed as if his entry for the 2010s was simply arriving a little early, perhaps as a career-capping statement. It’s certainly easy enough to picture Malick finishing the movie and then ascending to whatever mystical-looking beach he imagines we reach at the end of our earthly adventures.

Instead, something unusual happened: Less than two years later, Terrence Malick put out another movie. Then another, and another after that. As his newest film, A Hidden Life, hits theaters, Malick closes out the decade having directed five fiction films, plus the documentary Voyage Of Time, increasing his total output by over 100%. With another movie currently in production, Malick may still take his time (especially in the editing room), and may still avoid doing press for his work, but he no longer qualifies as an artistic recluse. The 2010s became, quite improbably, the Terrence Malick decade.

This development has not been universally embraced, certainly not by audiences (who do not tend to see Terrence Malick movies in droves, despite some decent arthouse box office for Tree Of Life) and not even by some former acolytes. Although certain cinephiles still revere the old master and his newer work, overall reviews for To The Wonder (2013), Knight Of Cups (2016), and Song To Song (2017), a loose trilogy of Tree Of Life follow-ups, grew increasingly impatient. Some wondered if Malick had diluted the unusual magic of Tree by returning to his free-floating, narration-heavy, elliptical aesthetic so many times. A Hidden Life has been better received, though anyone seeking a return to the clarity and economy of Badlands will be disappointed to find a three-hour movie about countryside pacifism.

To some extent, Malick’s big sin of the decade appears to be one of abundance. The techniques of his recent films are not terribly far removed from his other work; no one who’s seen, say, The Thin Red Line should be surprised by how often characters convey their thoughts and feelings via philosophical voice-over in his recent work. The differences between his movies is often a matter of degrees, and that remains true for those that are harder to tell apart: Song To Song is marginally easier to follow than Knight Of Cups, and more emotionally direct than To The Wonder. But though they have their hardcore fans, picking a favorite among those three depends largely on a combination of idiosyncratic personal tastes (Texas music festivals or Oklahoma vistas? Beach frolicking or field twirling? Small amounts of Natalie Portman or medium?) and overall patience with Malick’s distinctive style.

Screenshot: Song To Song

One aspect of Malick’s recent work that does set it apart from his classics is its time period. Badlands takes place about 15 years before its release year; Days Of Heaven and Thin Red Line are 20th-century period pieces; and The New World reaches back even further, to the early 17th century. The Tree Of Life is, amazingly, the first of his films to feature contemporary sections (though the Sean Penn segments are some of its least compelling, and were supposedly subjected to more of Malick’s cutting-room whims than most, giving Brad Pitt more meaningful screen time in the final theatrical cut). To The Wonder was his first film set when it was made, followed quickly by Knight and Song.

At first, this seems like a key to the noodly tendencies of those three films, a possible sign that Malick has more to say about our past than the here and now. This is borne out by both the experience and reception of A Hidden Life, the least elliptical and least contemporary of his 2010s fiction films. Most of the Malick signatures are there, but even at a languorous three hours, they’re applied with greater focus. The voice-overs, for example, are largely taken from letters between Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), rather than the couple’s separate, amorphous inner monologues. The family’s countryside idyll is a good match with Malick’s free-floating style, and the intrusion of World War II—and accompanying demands that Franz swear allegiance to Hitler and join the fight—creates a more striking contrast with the cruelties of the outside world. The characters seem less lost in their own heads.

A Hidden Life
Photo: Fox Searchlight

In keeping with his eye for natural grandeur and the mysteries of the human psyche, Malick makes the moral stand taken by Franz feel both natural and monumental. Although the movie still wanders, it’s stirring and moving in ways that audiences will recognize. And though it’s not a plotty film, on a story level Hidden Life feels immediate to what’s going on in the world at large right now. It’s about the moral courage to resist fascism, and what humanity gives up when it does or does not follow suit. In other words, A Hidden Life is easier to hook into than a movie like Knight Of Cups, where Christian Bale wanders around the edges of infinity pools in Hollywood misadventures obtusely patterned after tarot cards. The same goes for Tree Of Life, one of the best films of the decade, a vivid and affecting memoir that improbably and audaciously locates itself in the vastness of space and time. But to highlight his 2011 and 2019 films and chuck Malick’s informal trilogy of present-day soul searching would be to reject a uniquely 2010s experience.

It’s easy to see how these modern-day Malick projects might break his delicate spell. Without any way to experience 17th-century North America or World War II firsthand, it’s comparably easier to accept Malick’s dreamy, poetic versions of history, and arguably stranger to see modern life chopped into hazy, beautiful fragments. When Olga Kurylenko’s immigrant-by-marriage wanders the aisles of an Oklahoma grocery store in To The Wonder, most viewers will have a clear point of reference, which might well make these scenes look phony, or at least affected, by comparison. Contemporary-set Malick characters mope and frolic their way through a world that superficially resembles our own, but quickly turns into Malick Land, located at some cosmic-plane intersection between his autobiography and movie-character privilege. (Bale’s Knight Of Cups character is a depressed, debauched screenwriter; Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara play musicians in Song To Song.)

Screenshot: To The Wonder

Yet his eye does wander beyond the purview of the tortured artist, to characters like the struggling waitress played by Natalie Portman in Song or the anguished priest played by Javier Bardem in To The Wonder. If the 2000s saw a rise in “hyperlink” movies that turned on notions of local and global connectedness (Crash; Babel), Malick sometimes performed a more free-associative version in the 2010s, one that was more like clicking back and forth through multiple tabs in a browser without a clear cause-and-effect progression. It also resembles scrolling through a small but unpredictable Instagram feed: Occasionally, a new face or unfamiliar location pops up in between the shots of people walking on beaches or through dusky fields.

To the degree that Instagram has been evoked in film criticism since its 2010 creation, it is usually not with complimentary intent. Typically, it’s shorthand for style that appears as prefab and predictable as the click of a filter—a setting, masquerading as creativity. But though he seems like just about the least online filmmaker this side of Martin Scorsese, Malick’s compulsion to break his characters and stories down into little moments, to capture glimpses of beauty without feeling the need to make the surrounding context crystal clear, shares DNA with some corners of digital culture. When Michael Fassbender cracks up Ryan Gosling by impersonating a monkey on the beach in Song To Song, he could be making a goofball TikTok video.

Screenshot: Song To Song

Given the tensions and harmonies that Malick likes to generate between human beings and the natural world, it makes sense that his images could appear both off-the-cuff and utterly affected, like an Instagram post at a scenic spot where hundreds of tourist photos have preceded it. They somehow function as distillations of beauty, wistful records of personal experiences, and acknowledgments that said records are being kept in public, for other people to share (or envy, or roll their eyes at, or ignore) but not necessarily understand. It’s basically the internet brought to life—not the most-liked, most-shared posts of the year or decade, but the rest of it, out there in the digital ether.

This doesn’t necessarily comport with Malick’s image as a man out of time, sequestering himself in an editing room that may as well be encased in amber. (I have no idea what his internet habits are, if any.) Granted, too, there’s a fine line between the capturing of fleeting moments of unknowable beauty and simply packaging that aesthetic as a personal style/brand. Indeed, Levi’s had a whole ad campaign from 2010 that appeared to ape the style of both Malick and his one-time protégé David Gordon Green.

These ads appeared before Tree Of Life brought Malick back into movie theaters, but they do reflect how his influence would continue to grow over the course of a decade in which he would receive some career-worst reviews. In film writing, “Malickian” began to feel nearly as common as “Hitchcockian” or “Kubrickian.” Like those honorifics, it sometimes appeared to be applied superficially (as with those jeans ads, or some effective moments from Man Of Steel) more than through genuine understanding of Malick’s style and concerns. But there are plenty of films from the 2010s that feel genuinely related to his sensibilities, and unthinkable without his presence.

The aforementioned David Gordon Green, who began his career with such a Malick-friendly sensibility that the man himself produced his 2004 film Undertow, no longer makes as many poetic riffs on backwater post-industrial beauty. But he did repeatedly return to that mode for a couple of his best 2010s films (Joe; Prince Avalanche) and produced other projects that derive from that tradition (Dayveon; Land Ho!), in a copy-of-a-copy sense. Green’s fellow Texan David Lowery began his feature-directing career in earnest with 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a clear variation on Malick—specifically Badlands, with its outlaw lovers, dusky cinematography, and voice-over. Lowery’s subsequent (and better) films aren’t as obvious in their pastiche, but the influence remains. In his masterful 2017 film A Ghost Story, a specter watches his life, and the enormity of time, pass him by after leaving his human form in a car crash. It brings to mind Tree Of Life sans voice-over.

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, another entry on the A.V. Club’s best movies of the 2010s list, also feels indebted to Malick in the way its camera floats and lingers on its young subjects, making relatively simple images appear IMAX-sized by its vantage points. And though the Oscar-winning hit The Revenant is defined by the work of Malick’s go-to 2010s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki more than any specific spiritual commonality with the director (if anything, it’s a clumsy literalization of his ongoing nature-versus-grace debate), it can’t help sharing some style anyway; Lubezki shot Birdman and The Revenant after spending the better part of a year shooting Knight Of Cups and Song To Song.

Screenshot: Knight Of Cups

It may be that Malick’s influence in the wake of his 2010s films will be more subtle—his collaborators bringing some of his techniques to other films, rather than future filmmakers galvanized by Christian Bale’s ocean-gazing. But while his filmography didn’t need any extra titles to burnish his reputation (and it would have been very Malick to skip from 2011 to 2019), those interim projects hold a special place in his body of work. They serve as a reminder that his searching, free-associative approach to filmmaking means something to him, not just to enterprising ad execs, filmmakers who love Badlands, or the social media posts that accidentally resemble his work. In a decade of movie-studio consolidation, Malick continued to make films that only he could make, some of which feel more intensely personal than anything he’s ever done (sometimes to the point of bafflement), at a pace unprecedented in his career. He could have disappeared after Tree Of Life, and no one would have faulted him for it. He might well have ended the decade more beloved for his absence, his earlier films more than enough to secure a legacy and a bunch of ripoff Levi’s ads. But he pressed on, and asserted his presence with a decade’s worth of movies, a weird little feed of floating-camera reveries and unspoken sadnesses. In 10 or 20 years, they may look more like the 2010s than they do now.

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About the author

Jesse Hassenger

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!