Friday Night Seitz

The children of Terrence Malick

Slide show: As the legendary director's "Tree of Life" approaches, we look at how his films have transformed cinema

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    “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

    Written and directed by Andrew Dominik

    Writer-director Andrew Dominik, who made an international splash with the hyper-violent criminal biography “Chopper,” goes into full-tilt Malick mode in this period epic, which is less a western than a psychological drama about the distorting effect of celebrity. Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, the most worshipful member of a gang led by charismatic killer Jesse James (Brad Pitt).

    Overlong at two hours and 45 minutes, the film has a somewhat unfocused quality and an overall sense of too-muchness — I’m not convinced we really needed all those scenes of James tracking and confronting his various betrayers, “Godfather”-style, for example — but all the scenes dealing with Ford’s slow spiral into murderous dementia are superb. And the photography — by regular Coen brothers collaborator Roger Deakins — is striking. It often uses extremely shallow focus and old-timey filters, alternately suggesting an insanely overproduced music video or what Civil War photographer Matthew Brady’s snapshots might have looked like in color. The train robbery sequence is very “Days of Heaven” (something about it it reminded me of the wheat field fire and the campfire scenes); as if to make that connection official, “Heaven” costar Sam Shepard costars as James’ brother Frank. Dominik worked on the second unit of Malick’s fourth movie, “The New World,” until he was fired for not being part of the Directors’ Guild; although his time there was brief, he clearly learned a lot.

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    “The Black Stallion” (1979)

    Written by Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff; directed by Carroll Ballard

    For his directorial debut, the great filmmaker Carroll Ballard teamed up with an equally great cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, to adapt the classic children’s novel by Walter Farley. The result feels like the great children’s movie that Terrence Malick, for whatever reason, never got around to making. Although, to my knowledge, Ballard has never said he was explicitly aiming for a Malick-like tone, the movie definitely has that sort of feel; it came out a year after “Days of Heaven,” and the filmmakers’ temperaments were so similar that the movies almost felt like unofficial companion pieces. Ballard’s attention to nature and empathy for (and understanding of) animals is so evident, and so heartfelt, that it makes almost every other kids film set in nature seem like so much small-minded dramatic tourism. The screenplay’s co-writer, William D. Wittliff, wrote the screenplay for “Raggedy Man,” which was directed by Malick’s regular art director, Jack Fisk, and starred two Malick alums, Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard.

    The first half — which shows the shipwrecked boy (Kelly Reno) and horse getting to know each other on a remote desert island — is one of the greatest extended sequences of wordless communication between two sentient beings ever committed to film. And the rest of the film is pretty great, too, especially its account of how both the boy and the horse have trouble adapting to civilization after their rescue. There are a few moments in the England sequences of Malick’s “The New World” that seem almost like conscious tributes to similar moments in “The Black Stallion.” Ballard has become a bit of a specialist in family dramas set amid splendid natural landscapes, and they are all good, often great. “Never Cry Wolf” and “Fly Away Home” are especially good.

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    “Blessing” (1994)

    Written and directed by Paul Zehrer

    Even though this film is currently unavailable on DVD, I’m citing “Blessing” because I saw it 16 years ago at one of the earliest South by Southwest film festivals and can still vividly remember certain scenes and images. At the time it struck me as an especially heartfelt and sincere tribute to Terrence Malick’s first two movies, and I remember having quite a long conversation with its director, Paul Zehrer, who said he considered Malick the greatest of all American filmmakers. The main character is 23-year-old Randi (Melora Griffis), who is overwhelmed by the burden of life on a small Wisconsin dairy farm; her mother (Carlin Glynn) is almost incapacitated by arthritis, and her father (Guy Griffis) is paralyzed by depression over the prospect of someday losing the land that means so much to him. Randi has a chance to escape and start a new life with Lyle (Gareth Williams), who wants to take her on a road trip in his Winnebago, but personal and regional history exert such a powerful spell on her that she can barely even consider the possibility. This is a beautiful, heartbreaking work — a small film that feels big — and its elegant and thoughtful photography alone makes it worth seeing. “Blessing” was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 1994 Sundance festival, and nominated for an Independent Spirit Award the following year for best screenplay. I hope some DVD distributor will put this film out on Blu-ray. It’s something special.

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    “Endurance” (1999)

    Directed by Leslie Woodhead

    My colleague and fellow Terrence Malick enthusiast Bilge Ebiri calls this movie “a stealth Malick film,” and indeed Malick was involved with the project as a producer. It’s a docudrama about Haile Gebrselassie, generally considered the world’s greatest long-distance runner; it looks back through his life starting with his childhood in a village where his family shared a mud hut, gradually building toward his speed record-breaking victory in the 10,000 meter race at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Gebrselassie plays himself in the present day, and his nephew Yonas Zergaw plays him as a youth. Director Leslie Woodhead displays a Malick-like attentiveness to the nuances of landscape and weather and human bodies in motion, as well as to the eddies and currents of remembered experience. John Powell’s score is a stunner.

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    “George Washington” (2000) and “Undertow (2004)

    Written and directed by David Gordon Green

    Although he’s currently known as one of the reigning kings of stoner comedy (“Pineapple Express,” “Your Highness”), David Gordon Green started out as the most overtly Malick-like young director of his generation. He made his directorial debut with 2001′s “George Washington,” a dreamy youth drama about a group of rural teenagers living on the margins of working-class life; its off-kilter narration (by a young man who wears a football helmet to protect his never-closed skull) owes a lot to the narration of “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” as does Tim Orr’s photography, which often diminishes its characters against looming landscapes or gets very close to small but telling details. “Undertow” — about two boys fleeing the vicious uncle who murdered their father — probably owes more to “Night of the Hunter” than to any single Malick film, but the master’s touch is evident in the way Green shoots the characters in their rural environment, making the hills, trees and water seem both menacing and beautiful. Malick served as executive producer on the film, and Green has cited Malick as an influence on all his early work — especially “Days of Heaven,” the narration of which supposedly inspired him to write “Undertow.” His 2003 romance “All the Real Girls” also has a few Malick moments, and its hero (Paul Schneider) is so attentive to the tiniest flurries of emotion that in silent close-ups, I half expected the film to shift into an interior monologue — maybe quotes from “Leaves of Grass.”

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    “Memento” (2001) and “Inception” (2010)

    Directed by Christopher Nolan

    Christopher Nolan is just about the last major filmmaker you’d peg as a Terrence Malick fan. But he’s a huge admirer of the director, and consciously modeled the photography in those films’ “domestic flashback” sequences on the flashbacks in Malick’s war epic “The Thin Red Line.”

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    “Old Joy” (2006) and “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)

    Written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond ("Old Joy"), and Jonathan Raymond ("Meek's Cutoff"); directed by Kelly Reichardt

    Kelly Reichardt is hugely influenced by Malick, but has transformed those influences into something distinctive (and much smaller and more concentrated). The modern-day relationship movie “Old Joy” (2006) and the feminist western drama “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) are two especially intriguing examples. The former tells of Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), old friends reuniting for a weekend camping trip outside Portland, Ore. The movie probably owes more to “My Dinner With Andre” than to any single Malick film — Adam Nayman explores the similarities between the two movies — but the master’s inspiration is apparent in how the filmmaker shoots the friends’ journey from urban to rural settings, and in the enveloping, at times oppressive effect of the land itself. “Meek’s Cutoff” follows a young woman (Michelle Williams) on an absolutely grueling wagon train journey; the filmmaking is much more straightforward and linear than Malick’s, but the movie’s sober, detailed account of how hard it is to live off the land recalls the riverbank section of “Badlands” and several passages in “Days of Heaven.”

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    “Raggedy Man” (1981)

    Written by William D. Wittliff; directed by Jack Fisk

    This is the directorial debut of Jack Fisk — Malick’s regular art director — an adaptation of William D. Wittliff’s script about a divorced small-town telephone operator and single mom who causes a mini-scandal by getting too close to a heartbroken sailor on leave (Eric Roberts). The film has a couple of unnecessary subplots (one of which involves the title character, a mysterious Boo Radley-type figure) that are too neatly resolved. But this is still an immensely likable feature that has a courtly, slow-simmering romance at its center and never overhypes it. Visually, the Malick influence isn’t too overt — this is a pretty straightforward drama — but behind the scenes, he was the primary influence, in the sense that the movie simply would not exist without him. The movie is Fisk’s love letter to his wife, Spacek; they fell in love when they were working on “Badlands.”

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    “Ready to Work” (2010)

    Directed by John Hillcoat

    John Hillcoat, director of “The Proposition” and “The Road,” got his Malick jones on in this ad for Levi’s jeans. It caused a bit of a stir among movie buffs and labor advocates alike; the former objected to the way Hillcoat invoked the language of American cinema’s most overtly spiritual director to sell pants, while the latter griped that Levi’s had no business turning the American blue-collar worker into a mascot, considering how much manufacturing the company had outsourced over the last two decades.

    Commercial mandates aside, it’s certainly an arresting ad — a two-minute montage that begins with tableaux of desolate small-town landscapes and abandoned buildings and cars, then segues into heroic imagery of citizens going to work. As much as I would like to resist Hillcoat’s shameless appropriation of Malick’s signatures — including magic-hour photography, hushed voice-over narration, and a particular Wagner music cue associated with “The New World” — I have to admit that the shot of a church’s stained-glass window being repaired and a father raising his young son over his head give me chills every time. Damn you, Hillcoat, you artist, you whore.

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    “There Will be Blood” (2007)

    Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

    Like all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, this epic drama is a devil’s brew of influences, but they’re blended together with such imagination that the movie becomes its own magnificently prickly creation. Terrence Malick’s presence is felt in the movie’s overwhelmingly tactile images of Texas panhandle landscapes and in its ferociously convincing production design, which was overseen by Jack Fisk, Malick’s regular art director.

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    “True Romance” (1993)

    Written by Quentin Tarantino; directed by Tony Scott

    Although this adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s lover-on-the-run screenplay is a characteristically glossy, trashy, scuzzily violent Tony Scott picture, it’s improbably the sweetest thing Tarantino has ever written, kind of like a geeky video store clerk’s fantasy of entering various ’70s movies that he’d grown to know and love and somehow navigating their various treacheries and emerging a conquering hero. The pivotal early scene where hero Clarence (Christian Slater) “rescues” the beautiful young prostitute Alabama (Patricia Arquette) from her dreadlocked white-boy pimp (Gary Oldman) plays like a less morally ambiguous rewrite of the scene in “Badlands” where Kit “saves” his teenage girlfriend, Holly, from her domineering dad by executing him in his own home. The couple’s picaresque journey from Detroit to Los Angeles is often scored with a piece of Hans Zimmer music that blatantly apes “Gassenhauser,” a composition Malick used so brilliantly in “Badlands” that it will be forever associated with that film. The Dennis Hopper-Christopher Walken confrontation has absolutely nothing to do with anything remotely Malick-like, but I’m citing it here anyway because it’s so awesome.

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    “The Virgin Suicides” (1998)

    Written and directed by Sofia Coppola

    Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” is proof that the apple never falls far from the tree. The daughter of one of the great American filmmakers of the ’70s arrived with a movie that’s set in 1973 and (aside from its modern pop score by Air) might as well have been made in 1973. It’s a hazy, poky yet intensely atmospheric drama that doesn’t so much unfold as float along on a cloud of pot. Adapted from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the movie chronicles the mysterious suicide of the five beautiful Lisbon sisters in an upper-middle-class suburb of Detroit. Although its deadpan, at times cartoonish satire aims for an Evelyn Waugh-like corrosive wit, its overall tone is gentle and introspective. Malick-ian elements include a searching, novelistic narration, lush images of foliage, and lovely superimpositions; the opening sequence in particular seems hugely indebted to “Badlands.” A stray line by a major character sums up Coppola’s aesthetic: “What we have here is a dreamer, completely out of touch with reality.”