Terrence Malick is expected to release his next film, Radegund, in 2019. Ten years ago, a new Malick film would be worth its weight in cinephilic anticipation, but in 2019 it comes with a fair share of worries and groans. Why? Because Malick hasn’t made a good film in six years, much less a great one.
The Tree of Life (2011) is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. When you hear/read the occasional critic rambling about its unearned Palme d’Or win, or ranting about its overly sensationalized, falsely experimental artistry, just laugh. Walk away. It’s best to ignore contrarians who dissent for the sake of dissent alone. I’m not promoting ignorance, of course. Surely, there’s a good argument against it out there. But it’s commonly regarded as one of the 21st century’s best for a reason. It was also his last great film.
To the Wonder (2012) is good — small, wondrous, tender, bright. But it offered the first glimpse of deterioration in the unscripted lingerings that have come to define Malick since his star-studded, long-awaited return (move over Frank Ocean fanatics, four years has nothing on 20) with The Thin Red Line in 1998. The New World (2005) brilliantly affirmed that the fragmented, impromptu structure was Malick’s favorite new conceptual toy, and the floating, spirit-like camera work was his concomitant way of using and capturing it. The Tree of Life revealed utter mastery in that arena, and one year later (breaking the Guinness World Record by 5 years for the shortest time between Malick films), To the Wonder conjured the first worrisome bead of sweat over the infallibility of Malick’s otherwise armored legacy as one of film history’s most unwaveringly accomplished writers and directors. Then shit hit the fan.
Knight of Cups (2015) boasts a terrific cast and some deadass cool poster art, and that is all. The film itself is an absolute mess — a unique blend of surprisingly poor artistic taste, total insignificance, a deep lack of relatability, a sickening oversaturation of style, superfluous improvisation, distracting misuse of talent, and GoPros.
Next came the slightly less dissatisfying (but only slightly) Song to Song (2017), the premise of which had potential for all-time status and the delivery of which took that potential, chopped it up into a million pieces, made it watch Knight of Cups, scorched it in dumpster fire, and discarded the ashes on us. In almost every way, it was a carbon copy of what Malick had done wrong the year before. But it had Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman, so that was nice.
And then there’s the whole Voyage of Time (2016) lawsuit and eventual double release. No shocker that Malick can do cosmic special effects justice after working with Douglas Trumbull on The Tree of Life, or that Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s voices are therapeutic and angelic, respectively. The documentaries are fine and pretty.
So why and how did Malick go from five flawless films in 38 years to four forgettable films in five years, two of which are worth a watch and two of which are downright bad? Maybe Malick started to feel old (he is 75 after all). Maybe he came down with a severe case of FOMO regarding the 20 years he spent not making movies after the release of the immaculate Days of Heaven (1978). Maybe somewhere inside he caught inspirational wind of the maverick artistic prowess that he put on display with his debut, Badlands (1973). Maybe he grew bored with whatever else was going on in his life. Maybe something personal and tragic jolted him into action. Maybe he really wanted to work with those actors. Most would. That’s a forgivable ill.
We’ll probably never know exactly why. You can count on two hands how many pictures and interviews he’s taken, so there’s little hope of a public reckoning with his motivations. In that vein, we just have to live with what we’ve got and hope for the best in his next film, which — for the first time in years — might not be a worthless venture. Take heart, lost Malickians. A page is turning. We have five good reasons to believe that this purgatorial stretch could have a finish line with reinvigorated brilliance waiting on the other side.
First and foremost, Radegund has a “very well ordered” script, according to Malick. If there is one obvious string of continuity linking the lifelessness of his recent films, it’s the lack of a script. It worked out well enough for long enough, but it’s time for Malick to give it up and tell us a more coherent story.
Secondly, there isn’t a starry cast. Praise be that we don’t have to concern ourselves with whether Cate Blanchett or Antonio Banderas will exist as living breathing human characters or merely be exploited as disrupting wax sculptures. August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds, Allied), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, A Bigger Splash), Bruno Ganz (Downfall, The House That Jack Built), Michael Nyqvist (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) in a posthumous performance, and Franz Rogowski (Victoria, Transit) is a promising and sobering dose of star power for a sturdy return. The lack of stardom ought to leave room for the story to breathe.
Thirdly, there has been at least two years between films. Wow, that’s enough time to give a great film proper treatment in post-production! Fourth, it’s small in scope and significant in content. It tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, conscientious objector to the Third Reich in Nazi-occupied Austria who was executed in 1943. No bouncing between ritzy mansions and music festivals and nightclubs and all that jazz.
Lastly, he’s covering the history and (assumedly) the philosophy he wrestled with so fervently at Harvard, Oxford, and MIT via Wittgenstein and Heidegger, the latter a controversial Nazi supporter during World War II, Hannah Arendt’s lover, and a Hall of Fame German philosopher. One of the most fascinating aspects of Malick is his academic history. After becoming a Rhodes Scholar and attending Oxford for graduate studies, he dropped out due to a disagreement with his advisor (on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Kierkegaard’s understanding of the world). You’ve got to be pretty damn smart to go out on that note at Oxford’s Magdalen College. Summa cum laude at Harvard, translating Heidegger from German to English, teaching philosophy at MIT as a “Plan B”, and graduating in the AFI Conservatory’s inaugural class alongside David Lynch smart. The kind of smart that is emotional and intellectual enough to yield The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line or Days of Heaven. The kind of inimitable Malickian intelligence that might finally emerge from hibernation in 2019.
Great artists transform, renew, and adapt. If we’re lucky, the Malick that once wowed us will return in fresh form. It doesn’t matter whether that looks like his ’70s work with an updated hue or something we never expected from the auteur. What matters is that the film is inspired, insightful, imbued with mindfulness. If it isn’t, we’ve got a lot more to look forward to in 2019’s film scene. But I think we have substantial evidence to tenderly hope that Malick’s slump might be over.