When I was 17 I went to the cinema to see Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. At that age I’d not long graduated from kids’ movies and my cinema-going diet consisted mainly of James Bond movies and disaster films (it was the 70s). I don’t know why I’d chosen Days of Heaven. Back then, I didn’t choose films based on their directors, and Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams weren’t exactly big stars. But when it ended, I sat in stunned silence as the credits rolled. I’d never seen anything like it.
I think it is perhaps the most beautiful picture ever made.
The visceral effect of a Terrence Malick film is hard to describe. It just washes over you. Days of Heaven tells the story of a troubled love triangle set on a vast midwest ranch in 1916, but the story doesn’t sit at the front of the film. It is subsumed under layers of beautiful, languid photography, frequently shot at magic hour, eliciting a kind of heavenly vision. Except that heaven is here. It’s in the light on the grass, the waving fields of wheat, the romantic aura of an unlikely mansion, the images of lonely panoramas, even in the darkness of a locust plague.
I was hooked.
I watched Days of Heaven many times over during the nearly twenty years it took Terrence Malick to make his next film, The Thin Red Line. It contains everything his small body of work has become known for — the glacial pace of the storytelling, the jump cuts, the flat but elegiac voice-overs, the ravishing photography — cinema obsessed with and overwhelmed by the mystical and the metaphysical.
Adding to my love of Terrence Malick’s films is their profoundly Christian nature. Malick is to cinema what Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and GK Chesterton were to literature — not makers of “Christian art”, but artists so thoroughly Christian in their outlook as to frame everything they create with biblical ideas. Malick’s films aren’t merely “spiritual” or even broadly religious. They are explicitly Christian. But more than that, they commend the Christian faith. They are evangelistic!
So, what is the Gospel According to Terry? There’s so much that could be said about Malick’s Christian outlook, but here’s a short introduction to the topic.
GOD IS BEAUTIFUL. AND FRIGHTENING
Malick’s masterpiece, Tree of Life, begins with a quotation from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
One critic claimed that Tree of Life was nothing short of a cinematic attempt to prove the existence of God. It includes a near pitch-perfect sequence about the birth of the universe, which, in the context of that film’s richly metaphysical narration about the search for grace, clearly indicates the hand of God. If those scenes suggest a Big Bang, it’s an explosion only God could set off.
God, seen in creation, is as mysterious as a supernova, as frightening as an erupting volcano, as tender as a newborn child’s foot, as exquisite as the Milky Way.
Similarly, in his IMAX documentary, Voyage of Time, we get the creation of the universe, the formation of Earth, the evolution of species, the dawn of civilization and even a speculation on some time in the future when life becomes extinct and time collapses in on itself, and… what? A new heaven and new earth? Another age? In his review of the film for the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote,
“Before your eyes is a kind of miracle, a fusion of digital imagery and photographic imagination that seems at once utterly natural and completely impossible. You might forget that no cameras were present when the first sea creatures crawled onto land, and that the great extinctions and climactic upheavals of earth’s past — to say nothing of the aftermath of the big bang — were not captured on video. Mr. Malick presents these events as if he had drawn them not from his mind but from some repository of celestial memory.”
Celestial memory, indeed. Malick is taking us into the mind of God. And it’s beautiful, terrifying, overwhelming, majestic.
FIND THE WAY OF GRACE
In a voice-over at the beginning of Tree of Life, we hear Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) explain that there are two ways through life: the way of grace and the way of nature. She says, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries … Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it over them. To have its own way.”
Like Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares, in Malick’s vision grace and nature grow up together. We are caught up in the swirling, entwined interplay between them as they each compete to control our hearts. But, as Mrs O’Brien tries to instil in her sons, we must strive to follow the way of grace.
Even in the war film, The Thin Red Line, where the way of grace can be barely detected in the midst of bloodshed and violence, it’s still there. It’s there in the wide-eyed faith of Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), and in the scarred beauty of a tropical island. War is the way of nature and it is loud and bitter, but it will pass. The grass, the ferns, the butterflies, the snakes – they will abide.
But for Malick, grace is not merely a mystical experience of goodness. It is found chiefly in Christ. This is shown in a church scene in Tree of Life where a preacher asks his congregation, “Is there nothing which is deathless, nothing which does not pass away?,” after which the camera pans to a stained glass portrait of Jesus. The preacher continues, “We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forward. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that.”
The duality of grace and nature can also be found in To The Wonder, where Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) struggles with doubt, searching for grace and enlightenment. Where is God?, he wonders. The answer comes in a striking scene where Father Quintana is distributing Communion to prisoners through a small opening in their cell wall. As we hear him reciting the prayer of St Patrick (“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left”) there is a wonderful montage of the priest serving the least of these Christ’s brothers and sisters.
This is the way of grace, to follow Christ as he taught us.
The scene ends with a prayer from Cardinal Newman: “Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.”
BLESSED ARE THE PURE IN HEART
And yet those who find the way of grace and follow it are not guaranteed temporal happiness. In so many of Malick’s films the more religious the character, the purer their heart, the more they suffer. This is most obvious in A Hidden Life, the story of an Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refuses to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler when he’s called into service during World War II.
Franz’s faith in Christ constrains him from swearing allegiance to a man he considers to be anti-Christ. The three-hour film portrays the relentless pressure brought to bear upon him — from his neighbors, the authorities, even his family. In the end, no one would blame him for recanting. But he won’t.
We hear him quoting Isaiah 35, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.” But I kept thinking of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
Following Christ brings great joy, but first it leads you through the valley of the shadow of death.
In one sequence, we see Franz speaking to an artist who is painting religious scenes on the church walls. Referring to the church, the painter tells him, “We create admirers. We do not create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it.”
The painter then tells him he can’t paint Christ honestly because he hasn’t suffered enough yet. I suspect, Terrence Malick was inserting himself into the story.
Other religious characters suffer too. In Tree of Life, the grace-seeking Mrs O’Brien is forced to endure marriage to a bitter, explosive husband. And in The Thin Red Line Private Witt, who like Mrs O’Brien is drawn uncontrollably toward the light, asks himself, “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness?”
Malick’s answer is no.
Witt is part of 1st Battalion’s C Company, ordered to seize Guadalcanal from the Japanese during World War II. Early in the film he goes AWOL to live among a community of carefree Melanesians, a kind of Garden of Eden, where he finds not only respite, but senses that some spark of true life has entered him.
Later, having been arrested and imprisoned on a troop carrier, Witt is interrogated by the cynical Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) who mocks the private’s religious experience, saying, “Where’s your spark now? We’re living in a world that’s blowing itself to pieces as fast as everybody can arrange it.”
Witt is undeterred. He refuses to abandon his faith in truth and beauty.
Welsh humiliates him, screaming, “What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness? If you die, it’s gonna be for nothing. There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this world. Just this rock.”
THERE’S A BETTER WORLD COMING
Sergeant Welsh might think this world is just a rock, but Terrence Malick’s films focus on the yearning for a world-made-new, whether it be the Jägerstätters’ idyllic farm in the Austrian alps in A Hidden Life, or Sean Penn’s character’s visions of heaven in Tree of Life, or the beach scenes near Mont-Saint-Michel in To The Wonder.
Similarly, Private Witt’s South Pacific furlough in The Thin Red Line, and the Andrew Wyeth-inspired farm in Days of Heaven are all glimpses of another, better world than ours. As reviewer, David Roark put it, “Malick’s films function as cinematic liturgies that paint a distinctly Christian picture of the good life—the kingdom of God—reflecting the gospel story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.”
The New World retells the well-known story of the ill-fated 1607 Jamestown colony, focusing on the tragedy of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas’s impossible love. But this isn’t the Disney version. John Smith’s sojourn with the Powhatan tribe is an experience of paradise while the so-called civilized Jamestowners create a cesspool of death and depravity.
With the tribe, Smith finds the way of grace. He says, “I thought it was dream… what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.” But when Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) travels in the other direction, leaving the forest to be reborn as an English woman, it brings only death.
Malick is saying that there is a new world, but it’s not to be found where you think it is. It’s not in the manicured estates of the English aristocracy. When John Smith aches for the beauty he found in the Virginia forest, he echos the hope of Israel and the Christian yearning for the return of Christ. He dreams of a better world:
“Who are you whom I so faintly hear? Who urge me ever on? What voice is this that speaks within me… guides me towards the best? We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning. Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all, and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true common wealth, hard work and self reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to reack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor.”
There much more I’d love to say, but I’ve written too much already. Malick’s films are an acquired taste and not to many people’s liking. But if you’ve never seen them maybe this serves as motivation to try a few. I’ve listed them all with links to their trailers below. And brace yourself because his next feature film, which he’s just completed shooting, is based on the life of Christ himself.
THE COMPLETE FILMS OF TERRENCE MALICK
Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), Tree of Life (2011), To The Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), Voyage of Time (2016), Song to Song (2017), A Hidden Life (2019) The Last Planet (forthcoming)