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King of the ice palace: Terrence Malick’s long, slow game

What do lovers, children, psychopaths and Terrence Malick have in common?

The new Terrence Malick film, Knight of Cups, arrives in cinemas on 6 May. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to write: “The ongoing Terrence Malick project returns to cinemas next week, after a protracted spell in the editing room, with some new actors in it.”

Malick’s movies have reached a level of such wispy abstraction that they seem to blur into a single strip of celluloid – a dance of beautiful actors baring their souls in fragments of dialogue and voice-over, while the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki bobs and weaves through the tall grass like a daydreaming Keats.

In the latest film, Christian Bale plays a screenwriter adrift in the pleasure dome of Hollywood, wandering from nightclub to pool party and frolicking with a series of willowy beauties including Freida Pinto and Natalie Portman. They whisper promises of damnation and deliverance (“Where will I meet you? Which way shall I go? How do I begin?”), while trailing their hands in pools, or gambolling through surf. Bale wears the grim expression of a man beset by sirens, although, as critics have been quick to point out, Knight of Cups’s depiction of the Babylon of modern Hollywood both looks and sounds suspiciously like an advert for the fragrance that one should wear while braving it.

But then, the film is only notionally about Hollywood, in the same way as The Thin Red Line is only tangentially about the war in the Pacific. All Malick films are about the same thing – man’s fall from grace, paradise lost – a theme that he has worked and reworked in seven films spanning more than four decades. Working from “the inside out”, he shoots many of his scenes twice, once with dialogue and once without, giving him greater freedom in the cutting room, where he can layer the scenes with voice-over and music, cutting the cord of direct engagement between the audience and the drama, to kindle a mesmerised dependence on the opiate of imagery.

“He just got bored with his own writing and with our acting and started to see another movie in there,” said Richard Gere of Days of Heaven, the 1978 film that was shot almost entirely at the “magic hour” of dusk and which it took Malick two years to edit. Making it so exhausted him that he didn’t direct another picture for 20 years. “He was looking for God’s light,” said Gere’s co-star Sam Shepard. It’s a strong contender for the most beautiful film ever made.

All directors imagine themselves as gods. It’s in the job description. The question is: what kind? Vengeful Yahweh? Martyred Christ? Thunderous Thor? Playful Pan? Malick has a reputation for being a recluse, which is the entertainment industry’s way of saying “shy”. A genial, soft-spoken Texan who likes to dress a little formally in the Southern manner, he is, by all accounts, a great listener. “That is one of his great powers,” says Irvin Kershner in Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected, a new book of interviews with collaborators edited by Carlo Hintermann and Daniele Villa. “He doesn’t throw anything away.”

He is indecisive when it comes to casting; but hesitancy, in his case, is less a psychological flaw than a creative and philosophical tool, a way of flushing the universe’s intentions out of hiding. “When he looks at you, it’s like you’re OK,” says the actress Penny Allen. “People will do anything for someone who gives them that [feeling].”

So he is a Buddha, although it might be worth remembering accounts of his fist fight – not mentioned in the book – with his associate producer Lou Stroller while filming his 1973 debut, Badlands, after Stroller made a comment about Malick’s wife. “Didn’t even hesitate, just started swinging,” said Martin Sheen. “They were down like two buffalo.” Prince Siddhartha, then, if he’d been a cattle rancher.

One of the unusual things about Malick is how much life he lived before he was bitten by the film-making bug. He studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the concept of the world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein; then he worked as a photographer and wrote for the New Yorker, before studying film at the American Film Institute Conservatory under George Stevens.

He did a rewrite on the Dirty Harry script for Warner Bros – the serial killer in his version was a vigilante – and Marlon Brando was considered for the lead part. When Clint Eastwood was cast, however, Malick’s script was dropped in favour of an earlier one. The thought of American cinema’s premier Emersonian polishing Dirty Harry’s one-liners (“You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Does your ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow? Well, does it, punk?”) remains in the realm of conjecture.

So, the man who made Badlands was no neophyte film geek, but an accomplished person, a student and a writer, fluent in Spanish and French, possessed of a quiet confidence that led people to predict great things. While shooting Badlands, he fed Sissy Spacek her lines on rolled-up pieces of paper like love notes, peppering her with questions: “What do you think of this? How do you think Holly would do this?” Spacek remembers, “Right away, he gave me ownership of the character.”

Malick told Sheen, “That gun is like a magic wand.” The spell under which the actors worked was so intense that the finished film came as something of a shock. “He’s a killer . . . a horrible killer,” said Sheen of the character he played, after seeing the film for the first time, as if he had realised it only then. “I’ve never been that pleased with a film since . . . Frankly I don’t expect to be.”

Badlands – a story of two killers on the lam, recounted almost as if it were a daydream – is still Malick’s best movie, so perfect that it seems to have dropped from the Montana sky. Spacek, who was 22 at the time, remembers thinking about crew members who had come from another shoot: “They’re making a film somewhere else?” That’s how the movie feels for the viewer – like it’s the only movie, or the first film, its landscapes almost lunar, as if yours might be the only pair of eyes to see them. It ranks next to Citizen Kane, Breathless, The Night of the Hunter and The 400 Blows as one of the all-time great cinematic debuts.

Pauline Kael once said that cinema was a young man’s game, success bringing with it the one thing that all film-makers crave – control – but also expelling the messy give-and-take of collaboration from their lungs, the front-line contact with life that makes their work worth watching in the first place. The artist becomes the king of an ice palace. Art wins. That is the story of Malick’s career. Compare the persuasive Texan who fought and cajoled Badlands into existence, like a man coaxing fire from brushwood, with the “master” director who came out of retirement like some bashful deity to make The Thin Red Line after an absence of 20 years, driving actors such as Sean Penn to distraction with his vagueness and breaking the hearts of others – Bill Pullman, Mickey Rourke – who didn’t even make it into the finished film.

“He would let you flounder while the film was running out through the camera,” says the actor Ben Chaplin. “You have to trust him.” Trust, once earned, is now demanded. In The Thin Red Line, the number of voice-overs proliferated wildly. There was just one in the shooting script; in the end, most of the main cast had one. “We decided, let’s just do everybody,” says the editor Billy Weber, “and it fed into the idea that it’s all one voice, one man, one idea.”

As the producer Mike Medavoy puts it, “That character is Terrence Malick.” For fans and diehard auteurists, this is delightful news: a universe of Malicks in Malickland, running into other Malicks or bouncing off them to retreat into their Malicky thoughts. To everyone else, it smacks of solipsism. That, too, is part of the human experience. New lovers are solipsists, as are children and psychopaths, which is why Malick’s films on those subjects (The New World, The Tree of Life, Badlands) ring true; his feel for interior monologue, for life as lived inside our heads, has found a portion of the world to correspond to. When Sissy Spacek narrates, in her Texan drawl, “He dreaded the idea of being shot down alone . . . without a girl to scream out his name,” you know everything you need to know about this boy and this girl, who cannot express themselves except through violence and the clichés of teen magazines.

When the soldiers of The Thin Red Line, or any of the sleepwalkers in late Malick movies, let loose their gigantic thought bubbles, what you hear is not the characters but the director going over their heads, barging them out of the way to address the audience. The creator cannot let his creation alone and so it does not live without him. That is the trap of auteurism. It turns proof of genius into the main business of film-making. The number of people who see To the Wonder or Knight of Cups without first knowing who Malick is, already subscribing to the idea of his genius, must hover somewhere around zero. But Badlands had to go out into a world filled with strangers and make its case. And here we are, still discussing it, more than 40 years later.

Sean Penn recalls of working with Malick on The Thin Red Line, “We would laugh a lot, wondering, ‘Where is the guy that made Badlands? Where in his face?’ And once in a while you would see a kind of flash in his eyes . . . These moments of his eyes ­going wild. And you’d think, ‘Oh, there it is. There’s the guy that made Badlands.’”

Tom Shone’s Woody Allen: A Retrospective is published by Thames & Hudson

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism