Since Terrence Malick is, for good reason, one of the most hotly discussed and alternately valorized and vilified auteurs currently working, laying out his aesthetic obsessions and goals seems more than a little futile. But what fascinates me most is the way in which his predilections change, sometimes radically, from film to film. Aside from someone like, say, Godard, no other prominent filmmaker has had such a radical turning point or concrete stages of their career, but at least from my view it seems just as helpful to group each of his (narrative, feature-length) works into duos, specifically ones where the second of each group of two provides a notable stepping-stone point with which Malick leaps to his next stage of either profundity or pretension, depending upon your stance.
The most obvious of these, naturally, is that of his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. At the risk of being reductive, they are the two films even most Malick detractors enjoy, as they have an altogether grounded and staunchly character-driven narrative, and Badlands in particular has a more conventional look and feel to it than any of his other films. But even in Days of Heaven lie the seeds of the next stage of development: there is a rather notable reliance on the handheld, and overall more and more attention is paid to the natural elements surrounding the love triangle. And of course, Linda Manz’s voiceover is characteristically opaque, though it acts more as a backbone – as in Badlands – than the ruminations that are to follow.
Another fairly standard pair comes in the form of The Thin Red Line, Malick’s return to the stage of American cinema, and The New World. The similarities are patently clear: they are both historical films dealing with pivotal events (if not individual moments) in American history, and they are the longest films of Malick’s career (when looking at the extended cut of the latter, which is is the one I viewed). Additionally, both are immersed in nature, respectively beginning and ending with scenes of the natural world that feel at once serene and disquieting, and seem to be told in both very broad and very intimate strokes. The New World, with its relative freedom from something on the order of the tense action of the Battle of Guadalcanal (though it too boasts a remarkable, visceral battle sequence) reaches ever more towards the meditative scenes of connection in an almost primal state; the scenes of John Smith commingling with the Powhatan are among the most moving in his entire filmography.
Easily the most illogical pairing, on the surface, comes from arguably his most acclaimed and most underrated films, respectively, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. The first is his grandest, most “cosmic,” while the second is, to my eyes, his simplest and most small-scale (and his first film set fully in the modern world). But both provide some of his richest and most finely attuned work with characters, and both are (creation of the universe digression aside) firmly situated in the South. Days of Heaven also shares this setting, but it feels paramount to these films, a setting both clearly definable and yet universal to Malick’s own sense of Americana. And both have scenes of immense catharsis and power: The Tree of Life with its beach/heavenly reunion and To the Wonder with a climactic, almost halo-infused parting – religion figures prominently in these two films as a central touchstone of the culture, including but not limited to Bardem’s character.
Leaving aside Voyage of Time, with its necessarily protracted production and putatively documentary aspects, the final pair thus far is of two films situated in specific entertainment industries: Knight of Cups with its ennui-ridden Hollywood and Song to Song with its hedonist Austin music scene. Both rely heavily on their respective milieus and have a surfeit of cameos, and both feel relentlessly modern; while To the Wonder has a certain timeless quality only occasionally broken, these two are utterly of a specific moment already gone. What progression Song to Song offers is unknown, especially with the purportedly back-to-basics nature of Radegund, but it is important to say that Malick has and, God willing, never will regress. He does recapitulate and return to certain themes and ideas, but his cinema is one of innovation and breathtaking beauty and empathy.