The Way of Nature, The Way of Grace: Why Terrence Malick Is The Most Spiritual of Modern Filmmakers

“The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

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 too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

They taught us that no one who ever loves the way of Grace ever comes to a bad end.

I will be true to you. Whatever comes.” 

Terrence Malick votaries will recognize the above as the first words spoken in his 2011 magnum opus, The Tree Of Life. They lay out a vision of Malick’s idiosyncratic spirituality that is centered on Christianity but not exclusively to it. Innocence and the loss of innocence because of desire, corruption, and selfishness are at its heart. 

For Malick, the world of Grace is one of acceptance, love, and compassion. Jessica Chastain’s mother in The Tree of Life may be the best characterization of this. She represents the mother archetype– feminine, nurturing, and ceaselessly giving. She embodies everything sacred about the virgin figure found in Christianity. She defends her children against the masculine, the father who is punishing, angry, and unkind, embodied by the wrathful God of the Old Testament. 

The world of Nature is the world of narcissism, violence, and fear. While Malick is not generally considered a violent director, it is noticeable that many of his movies– Badlands, Days of Heaven, and A Hidden Life– include scenes of murder. In contrast to the idyllic settings of his film. These murders represent the way of Nature, a representation of man’s basest instincts where man’s survival drive has been transformed into a will to power. 

Malick heightens these themes with a laconic, silent wonderment of existence. Technically Malick’s filmmaking style is idiomatic, his films immediately recognizable. His movies take place in surreal, dreamlike nature. Each scene seems to be filled with lush vistas, towering mountain ranges, diffuse clouds, and sunlight swarming the heavens. Blue skies are rare in his films, as he seems to prefer seeping light through shades of clouds, painting the sky in yellows and reds, evoking a silent, observing divinity. (His 1978 film Days of Heaven was shot exclusively during the “Golden Hour,” which is the hour before and after dawn and dusk).  

Malick’s camera is in constant movement, drifting and gliding, never still or dull, his camera a stand-in for the wondrous, spiritual awe with which he sees the world. Classical music from the masters of old (and sometimes new) are playing perpetually. The music imbues the ordinary with a sense of grandeur and awe. Unlike a steadier, more conventional director, Malick employs jump cuts with abandon. But unlike other filmmakers– Godard comes to mind– his jump cuts are not staccato, but lyrically blur the lines between scenes and the passage of time. Although time does pass in his movies, I have the sensation while watching them of time as an eternal now, free from the psychological concepts of past and future. I am rarely as present in my life as I am in a Malick movie.  

But his visual style is often in contradiction to the world of Man. Take his 1999 film The Thin Red Line, a movie that finds the poetry amidst the horror of war. About an hour into the film, a phalanx of American troops wait on a hillside, readying a charge toward a succession of entrenched Japanese machine guns. Just before they move ahead, the camera moves toward the gray sky just above the tall grass of the hill. The camera doesn’t move but rests on the movement of the clouds until finally, the sun is free, shimmering everywhere, illuminating the tall stalks swaying in the light wind. 

It is a sublime moment, a moment of great spirit.  But just as suddenly, seconds later our nameless protagonists are gunned down. It is these moments that define the cinema Terrence Malick: the interplay and coexistence of the entrancing and the evil, the beauty of nature and the monstrosities of men; between a state of Grace and a state of Nature.

***

Malick films are not for everyone. I’ve known many to find his movies incredibly dull. Those hallmarks of narratives, such as dialogue or plot, often get ignored for whispered voiceovers and illogical scenes. (His latest film, A Hidden Life, however, is his most conventionally plotted film in years). I’ve known many to outright dislike Malick because of it. One college friend hated The Thin Red Line, especially when compared to Saving Private Ryan, a far more conventional war film that came out the same year. And to be fair, there are moments when I roll my eyes in his films, his style succumbing to laughable earnestness and maddening pretension. (The love scenes in To The Wonder or The Thin Red Line come to mind).

Others I’ve known say derisively that Malick desperately needs an editor, that his films are self-indulgent and overwrought, that the sublime moments get lost in the messiness and unevenness of his style. Or that he is so ludicrously sentimental and romantic as a filmmaker that he turns the ordinary into highfalutin drivel. But I think that misses the point. These films are not perfectly crafted narratives where every scene is critical to understanding a complicated plot. The messiness is the point. As A.O. Scott says in his review of The Tree of Life,

To watch “The Tree of Life” is, in analogous fashion, to participate in its making. And any criticism will therefore have to be provisional. Mr. Malick might have been well advised to leave out the dinosaurs and the trip to the afterlife and given us a delicate chronicle of a young man’s struggle with his father and himself, set against a backdrop of rapid social change. And perhaps Melville should have suppressed his philosophizing impulses and written a lively tale of a whaling voyage. 

Personally, I am willing to forgive any flaws in Malick because his films elicit such a strong, sacred feeling within me. His movies are religious experiences, flawed and messy but somehow divine and meaningful. Malick is the rare filmmaker– Dreyer and Bresson are others that come to mind– that express the grandeur of life through the image. All his films but The Tree of Life, in particular, have better grounded me in my daily life and helped change me into a more spiritual being, one who can let of his ego and desires just a little bit and connect to the wonderment of existence. After all, the beauty of the world is always available to us. Like the movement of the clouds to reveal the sun on a hillside, Malick is one of the few artists who allow us to see it a little more clearly. 

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