The films of Terrence Malick reveal the director’s religion and how he views nature, good and evil, and the apparent answer in the form of divine transcendence.
Terrence Malick has become one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last 50 years. His films have won honors at the Cannes Film Festival, including the Palm d’Or for The Tree of Life. Multiple reasons can be given for Malick’s success, but the main reason people view his work as some of the best of his era is the transcendent quality he brings to each film. Malick routinely explores ideas influenced by his religion in his movies, having grown up Episcopalian, and his rooted spiritual views on the world can be seen and examined all throughout his filmography. He provides moral lessons to his viewers, asks deep philosophical questions about the universe, and ultimately sees a divine force behind nature and the workings of humanity.
Terrence Malick: The Early Years
Malick’s first two films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), see the director developing his voice and style. These two movies came in the middle of the New Hollywood movement, where audiences and critics began to place a film’s director as the primary author of a work. Simultaneously, many new directors with new styles began to emerge, including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Robert Altman. Another such director was Malick, who had recently graduated from Harvard College and studied philosophy at Magdalen College. His philosophical studies along with his Episcopalian background are clearly present in his films, where he often questions the mysteries of the universe and the presence of a divine, transcendent being, or God.
Badlands and Days of Heaven both feature less explicitly religious material than Malick’s later efforts. However, scholars have anointed the movies as “moral parables.” In Badlands, the two main characters, lovers Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) make a series of bad decisions that lead to them being on the run from the law, ultimately resulting in life-altering consequences. In Days of Heaven, Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) believe they have discovered heaven on earth when the trio travels to the beautiful home of a wealthy farmer to help harvest crops. Both films illicit subtle biblical imagery. Critics and scholars have compared Kit and Holly to a post-Fall Adam and Eve, hiding from the law after Kit kills Holly’s father much in the same way Adam and Eve hide from God after they eat the forbidden fruit. Meanwhile, Days of Heaven features allusions to the plagues of Egypt when the wheat fields are destroyed by fire and locusts. Both films put the characters’ choices front and center and suggest that there are consequences for one’s actions.
Established even in Malick’s first two features is the theme of the function of nature and humankind’s relationship to it. Malick, throughout his work, views nature as both a beautiful and terrifying force. He asks how human behavior affects the balance of the universe itself, proving that he sees the world through a certain moral, even religious, framework. Malick has said of his first two movies: “For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more.”
War, America, and Religion
After Days of Heaven, Malick went on an extended hiatus. He returned in 1998 with his World War II drama, The Thin Red Line (1998). Here, Malick’s religious leanings begin to become more apparent. He again paints the natural world with great beauty. However, the evil that humankind can exhibit amongst themselves infects the natural world in this film. War brings destruction not only to fellow humans, but it also corrupts the beauty around us. The best moment to prove this thesis comes in one of the most famous shots of the movie: when the beautiful hillside where much of the film takes place is bombed as the Americans try to attempt to secure it from the Japanese. Once the fighting starts, as American troops charge up the hill, shots of blood and troops in pain are contrasted with the beauty of the island. Malick’s technique of contrasting scenes of life with images of death emphasizes his insistence on conflict that results from a fallen world. A key component of Christian teaching is the idea that the world fell into sin and death as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God. Malick shows these results on a large scale in The Thin Red Line, suggesting that war and death are inevitable outgrowths of the Fall.
Malick’s next film, The New World, functions in a similar way to The Thin Red Line thematically. Here, Malick lends his idiosyncrasies to the John Smith/Pocahontas story and the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. Rather than focusing on the story proper, Malick again is more interested in the transcendent elements at play. The theme of nature is explored from a different angle in the role of the indigenous Powhatan tribe. The peaceful tribe is seen as being in touch with nature, while the conquering settlers suffer from disease and famine.
Malick’s portrayal of Pocahontas is key to understanding The New World’s spiritual significance. She and her people face many trials over the film’s runtime. Still, Pocahontas remains a character full of grace and wonder. The film’s closing moments see Pocahontas and her young son running joyfully running and playing on the lawn of their new English home, interspersed with beautiful shots of nature typical in a Malick film. Her childlike innocence and commitment to staying good is symbolic of how Malick views the soul: a good soul stays good even in the worst of times.
Malick’s first two films show his characters consistently being faced with decisions to either do right or do wrong. In The Thin Red Line and The New World, this tension between what is good and what is evil is expressed visually. These two films depict a spiritual battle between good and evil, and Malick gives clues as to how he believes this battle will be resolved. Ending The New World by expressing the goodness of Pocahontas can be seen as a triumphant final victory of the good over the evil in a person’s soul. The Thin Red Line’s final shot features a plant that is beginning to grow on the beaches of a battle-torn country, symbolizing nature’s survival despite the evil that exists in humanity.
Religion in The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life (2011) takes Malick’s spiritual leanings and places them front and center. The film also shows a maturation of Malick’s theological thinking by posing a question: “What happens when we choose the good, but still suffer?” This is the basic theological, philosophical concept known as “the problem of evil.” Many of the great storytellers have addressed this problem in their work, and in The Tree of Life, Malick again brings his audience into the depths of chaos and evil, only to pull us up with another beautifully positive outlook.
Theologian Peter Leithart writes extensively on the theological implications of The Tree of Life in his book “Shining Glory”. He recognizes the film’s structural comparison to the Old Testament book of Job, in which a man endures great suffering, but refuses to “curse God and die.” Malick uses the book of Job as a basis for the questions he asks in The Tree of Life. “Where were you?” is a question raised in Job and in the film, when members of the O’Brien family, living in Texas in the 1950s, ask God where He was when son and brother R.L. tragically dies offscreen. Jessica Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien asks that question in voiceover right before the movie transitions into its most beautiful sequence, where Malick replicates the beginning of the universe. This structure again mirrors Job, when Job dares God to meet him in court. God comes in the form of a whirlwind, and throws a series of questions at Job, including “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Malick opens the film with this very text. God reveals His true power to Job and reminds Job that He is working all things together for His glory.
In the film, Jack O’Brien is the eldest son. Sean Penn plays a grownup version of the character, who has lost his faith after his brother’s death. The film functions as his redemption story, as he again finds transcendence and learns to let go of his own grief. The film’s closing moments, which can only be described as a glimpse into heaven, shows both Jack and Mrs. O Brien giving themselves over to something more powerful than themselves. “I give him to you,” Mrs. O’Brien says of R.L. The characters, like Job, have learned to see through the horrors of the world because of their ultimate trust in the divine.
Terrence Malick in the Present Day: The Contemporary Trilogy
Malick’s next three films form an unofficial “trilogy” consisting of To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and Song to Song (2017). He employed a similar directorial style to that of The Tree of Life, though narratively speaking, these films follow a similar parable-like structure that his early films followed. The films also feel similar to Badlands and Days of Heaven in that they also analyze the view that chasing after temporary vices will not ultimately satisfy those who pursue them.
Though these three films are much more abstract, the subtext is the same: humans, when attempting to function without looking to the transcendent, easily devolve into something chaotic. Relationships are ruined. People are constantly anxious about their place in the world. Rooney Mara’s character in Song to Song, a struggling musician says: “Am I a good person? Do I even want to be?” These are the questions one raises when not guided by a true moral compass. Again, Malick finds a way to bring his characters out of the trouble they are in by discovering meaning beyond their own existence. Mara’s character in Song to Song says: “There is something else, something that wants us to find it.” Christian Bale’s Rick in Knight of Cups finds his way out of an unstable and unsatisfying life of drugs, partying, and lust. Javier Bardem’s priest in To the Wonder survives a crisis of faith, uttering the prayer “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me” as cares for the elderly and the poor. Every character that undergoes a transformation does so through a spiritual realization that there is something greater than the chaos of this world that they must strive to find.
Placing these three films in modern times means that the moral problem of good and evil is ongoing. It is not something that we as humans have somehow solved with technological advancements, scientific discoveries, or social justice. The quest for meaning is as old as the oldest stories, and Malick’s movies show that quest from a variety of different time periods. This trilogy is meant to hit close to home to the viewers, placing them in the shoes of these characters and begging them to ask the same questions.
A Hidden Life
Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life (2019), sees Malick returning to the past. The film takes place during World War II and follows an Austrian man who refuses to fight for the Nazis due to his religious convictions. The main character, Franz (August Diehl) is Malick’s most obvious Christ figure, a character who undergoes terrible persecution despite his innocence. Much of the film depicts Franz suffering greatly at the hands of his captors. He is seen asking for advice from the religious leaders in his community, only to be told to remain devoted to “the fatherland” rather than his convictions. He is rejected in a way that is symbolic of the religious leaders in the New Testament and their rejection of Christ. In the Christian tradition, Christ suffered greatly and died despite his own innocence, and the early saints (and Christ himself) tell the followers of Christianity to follow His example, to “pick up their cross.”
Because of this call, Franz knows that his death will only lead to glory. His character fulfills and ends a journey that all of Malick’s characters undergo, though he is the only one we see at the end of this journey. While Malick’s other films show his characters as either rejecting the call to transcendence (leading to consequences) or accepting that call (leading to contentment), Franz is the only character we see stay with his convictions until the very end of his life. Franz’s fate in A Hidden Life is the inevitable conclusion, in Malick’s view, of one who takes seriously the call to live the Christian life.
Over the course of his career, Malick has blended a technical filmmaking prowess with an explicitly religious bent. He weaves complicated ideas into his narratives and directs his films in a way that may at first seem unapproachable. But a further analysis into his work proves that he is interested in ideas that are essential to understanding the human condition. To try to succinctly summarize his films or to say one interpretation of his work is more correct than another, is to diminish the mystery and wonder of Malick as a filmmaker. However, it seems clear that his Episcopalian background, his views on nature, God, and the person of Christ, at least serve as foundational pieces for his work as a filmmaker and tone poet. Even if one does not respond to the more overt religious imagery in his works, any viewer can still walk away from a Malick flick with a plethora of ideas and conclusions. Perhaps a straightforward message present in his films is this: Life is difficult, but it can also be beautiful if one’s soul is good.
Malick’s next film, The Way of the Wind, is supposedly in post-production and depicts the life of Christ. This future project will certainly continue to reveal the reclusive director’s religious views to the rest of the world.