This week, after an absurdly long delay following its premiere at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, Terrence Malick‘s “Knight of Cups” sighs, whispers and twirls its way into theaters. Love it, loathe it, or end up somewhere in between (our review), there is no doubt that, like every Malick movie that has come before, it is the Malickiest to date. It has as astonishing cast: Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas, Isabel Lucas, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Wincott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Clifton Collins Jr., Cherry Jones, Nick Offerman, and so on and so on — wait, is that Dan Harmon?
In a world of colossal star egos, where A-list careers are defined by towering awards-bait roles, it’s amazing that Malick gets even Z-listers to show up when the standard punchline is “Congratulations! You’ve been cast in a Terrence Malick outtake!” (You can read about Actors Cut From Malick Films here). No actor has ever won an Oscar for a Malick film (in fact, the only Oscar for any of his films was for Best Cinematography on “Days of Heaven“). Yet show up they do, in droves, as though it’s some sort of compulsory rite of passage. Some have the “quasi-religious” experience Cate Blanchett describes, other have a more surreal encounter with the Malickverse, such as the one Thomas Lennon outlines in this hilarious account of his day on the “Knight of Cups” set. But all of them seem to jump at the chance, despite manifold stories of disappointment and pique when the premiere rolls around and the various characters’ screen times are finally revealed.
So how many of them really get to give a performance? It’s a fascinating prism through which to consider Malick’s films, which almost seem (recently anyhow) to set themselves apart from such prosaic concerns as “acting” or “creating character.” After all, if we were to be wholly honest about the Best Performances in Malick films, and were to be influenced by the elements that Malick seems most invested in, the top ten might look like this:
10. Dinosaur no. 2 — “The Tree Of Life”
9. The Horizon — “Badlands”
8. A Baby’s Foot — “The Tree of Life”
7. Long Grass — “The Thin Red Line”
6. The Tree Ben Affleck Is Afraid Malick Is More Interested In Than Him — “To The Wonder”
5. A Burning House — “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven”
4. Mickey Rourke’s Shadow On That One Fern — “The Thin Red Line”
3. Another Tree, Not The One Ben Affleck Was Talking About — “The Tree of Life”
2. Peanut Shell no 4301 playing Locust #6277 — “Days of Heaven”
1. This Upstaging Asshole Osprey — “The New World”
But Malick’s well-documented preference for landscape and nature over people aside, some appearances by human men and women do actually stand out. Whether because they punch through the diaphanous floatiness of his style or because they seem peculiarly attuned to it, there are performances in Malick films that are extraordinary. Here are our favorite 15.
Olga Kurylenko as Marina in “To The Wonder” (2012)
By rights, “To The Wonder” should have been a bigger moment for Kurylenko than it was: here was the onetime Bond Girl being given a central role in a hugely anticipated auteur’s follow-up to his previous Best Picture nominee, a part that on paper certainly had all the shades of light and dark that would make it a thespian’s dream. But with his usual lack of regard for anything so petty as building the career of his stars, Malick shot many of those more actorly scenes of hysteria, violence and argument, only to leave them on the cutting room floor and present a much more sedate and twirly picture of his leading lady. But Kurylenko is still very impressive in the film —maybe more so for the restraint imposed on her performance in the edit. She is as luminous as first love in those golden remembered moments of happiness, and as sullen as a candle snuffed out later. And if we’re never quite inside Marina, looking out —in what has widely been interpreted as a kind of cinematic apology to his second wife, Malick’s film orbits around her rather than coming from her— it does give us a 360 degree impression of this naively hopeful woman and the colossal pain of having invested too much in a love that dies.
Richard Gere as Bill in “Days of Heaven” (1978)
A prime candidate for the distinction of being the most beautiful film ever made, it stands to reason that Malick’s “Days of Heaven” should star one of the world’s most beautiful actors at the height of his youthful glory. But Gere, who was almost always defined by his physical attributes in his early films and who often seemed content to let his pout do the talking, actually feels real in this phantasmagorical bygone world of burning fields and magic hour horizons. Perhaps it’s because his character —and this was back when Malick was still passingly interested in creating characters who were more than mouthpieces or reflections of his own philosophies— is so surprisingly ambivalent. The love between Bill and Abby (Brooke Adams) is less a source of joy and goodness than a stubbornly unalterable, inconvenient fact which ties them together and allows Bill’s amoral actions to be interpreted as both the patriarchal protection of his makeshift family unit, and the hotheaded, unthinking behavior of a young, rather short-sighted and desperate man. There is tragedy baked-in to Bill’s story from the very beginning, but Gere’s subtle, mostly wordless portrayal, which incorporates elements of selfishness and vanity as well, makes him far more complex than the straight-up tragic hero, doomed for loving the wrong woman.
Jim Caviezel as Private Witt in “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
Pvt. Witt in Malick’s achingly gorgeous hymn of war and nature might well be Jim Caviezel’s most spiritually anguished role —and this is the guy who played Jesus. But as the foundering, questing, spinning moral compass of the “The Thin Red Line,” it’s Witt who carries us through the film as much as anyone does in this exceptional choral ensemble. Much to the well-publicized dismay of Adrien Brody, who thought he was playing the lead, Malick found himself becoming progressively more interested in Witt’s point of view, and you can see why in Caviezel’s intensely soulful, curiously alien performance. As Witt’s external journey takes him from deserter to martyr, Caviezel’s bruised, dazed expressions and the sad, thwarted hope and kindness in his every interaction give life and fluidity to his inner journey. It’s probably the best example of Malick not so much directing performance in the moment as finding it later in the edit, and he found a truly great one here, with Caviezel’s turn remaining one of best examples of show-don’t-tell characterization in his whole filmography —he says so much while scarcely speaking a line.
Linda Manz as Linda in “Days of Heaven” (1978)
You could write a book about Malick’s use of voiceover (in fact, I readily volunteer if anyone would like to commission one, and I do not even consider myself a diehard Malickite), but any such exploration would have to set the teenage Linda Manz’s beautifully imperfect narration of “Days of Heaven” as its cornerstone. Her heavily accented, flat-vowelled, often croaky voiceover was originally designed simply to fill in narrative gaps (back when Malick cared about narrative). But more so even than her onscreen performance (which is also terrific), Manz’s childish musings give “Days of Heaven” an added dimension. Reorienting the story so it’s seen through her curious but oddly uninvolved eyes, everything from Nestor Almendros‘ honeyed photography to the fragmentary, impressionistic editing style is giving reason and meaning: it’s the fumbled recollections of a teenage girl trying to make sense of her world. And the prosaic nature of her observations, her untamed Chicago street-urchin patter, and the pint-sized tough guy way she sets herself at the center of events with all the unselfconscious egotism of a child, all serves to ground the more ethereal aspects of “Days of Heaven,” and to make Linda one of its most abiding characters.
Cate Blanchett as Nancy in “Knight of Cups” (2015)
With a scant few minutes of screen time in Malick’s latest palimpsest, Blanchett plays Nancy, the ex-wife of Christian Bale‘s floundering, philosophizing, philandering Rick. But while she is just one of the many women in “Knight of Cups” who pass through Rick’s life (all of them insanely beautiful, of course), Nancy is the only one for whom we have a sense of a life outside of his stream of consciousness. Partly this is a concrete narrative decision on Malick’s part —like when we see Nancy, independent of Rick, wearing scrubs at work with her hair tied carelessly back from her face, tending to patients— a way to set the woman-he-married apart from all the other women of his life. But largely it is due to Blanchett, whose seeming limitless strength as an actress breathes reality and life into an otherwise insistently abstract film. Nancy is present —she is there, she is tangible— because Blanchett creates a connection between her character and the audience that almost palpably tears through the clouds like a thunderbolt. For better or worse, for richer or poorer (and whether it’s intentional or not), she makes all Rick’s other women seem like mere projections, shadows or silhouettes.
Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith in “The New World” (2005)
As I confessed not so long ago, it’s taken me a while to come around to Colin Farrell as an actor, and I still find his turn in “The New World,” which is so beloved and held up as one of his greatest performances by many of his fans, difficult to fully embrace. But the fact that his beetle-browed hunkiness feels, to me, out of step with Malick’s abstruse reimagining of the founding of the Jamestown colony does make his turn a very memorable and distinctive one within the Malick filmography in which so many (possibly more accomplished) actors tend to fade into the background. As the roguish renegade captain who finds some brief measure of redemption in his love for Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), Farrell brings a kind of rough, grounded urbanity, even a modernity, to the story. It’s a performance that feels like it somewhat anchors the first half of a film that could otherwise easily drift off on the currents of Malick’s more mercurial tendencies, and if that makes it sit somewhat uneasily in the mix, it also provides a much needed contact point between our reality and the mythic landscapes of Malick’s imagined New World.
Brad Pitt as Mr O’Brien in “The Tree of Life” (2011)
Brusque, crew-cut, often seen in glimpses, partially obscured, half-framed-out of the picture, the role of Mr. O’Brien in Malick’s borderline sacred meditation on mortality is about as far from a traditional star vehicle part as you can imagine. And to see Brad Pitt, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, commit to it so totally, is one of most unalloyed pleasures and surprises of “The Tree of Life.” Pitt, who also produced the film, brings a seriousness that we might not otherwise have known him capable of, to his part as the disciplinarian 1950s father, strict because it is, as the voiceover frequently repeats, his “nature,” rather than out of any psychological cruelty or malice towards his children. Indeed, the whole film can be interpreted as his son Jack (Sean Penn), sifting through the rubble of his childhood recollections to find a way to end the cycle of blame, regret, and guilt that his father represents. And so Pitt, like Jessica Chastain alongside him, has the unenviable task of embodying an abstraction twice over — he is not just a symbol, of nature, fatherhood, and will, he is also Jack’s memory of Mr. O’Brien, his impression of a figure so truculent and towering he could block out the sun. The actor does his character a great service by making him all of those things, and also a very ordinary, forgivable man.
Sam Shepard as The Farmer in “Days of Heaven” (1978)
Without wanting to get into too much of a #TeamEdward vs #TeamJacob type situation, you can tell a lot about a person by how they respond to the central love triangle in “Days of Heaven.” And Sam Shepard, as the third party who unwittingly comes between Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) ,could easily be the villain of the piece, the one who interrupts the pure, eternal, unshakable true love the other two share. But not only is that hardly Malick’s intent (was ever there a director less in thrall to the idea that love makes good people of us all?), it’s virtually impossible to imagine with such a subtle and stoically sympathetic portrayal of The Farmer. One of the most serially underrated actors of his generation, Shepard plays his nameless role so hauntingly it’s as if he is a ghost who has somehow forgotten to die just yet. Of course, that’s exactly true: he is the sickly but moderately wealthy man, the ticket to an easier life for Bill and Abby, who ruins everything by not dying when he’s supposed to, and then furthermore by proving to be lovable in his own right. So yes. #TeamTheFarmer all the way.
Elias Koteas as Captain James “Bugger” Staros in “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
It’s more or less the ne plus ultra of the ensemble film, in which even the vast, starry cast often takes a back seat to the influence of the flora and fauna around, so it nearly feels impossible to single out any one performance aside from that of nominal lead, Jim Caviezel. Nearly. Koteas’ performance as the mild-mannered, often derided Captain, who, in the face of the roaring bluster of Nick Nolte‘s sclerotic Lt.Col. Tall, refuses to send his men up that hill to die, risking accusations of cowardice and outright treachery, is among the first things I think of when I think of this film — my personal vote for Malick’s greatest. Apparently the role changed from Jewish to Greek mere days before filming started, but there are subtle flourishes (Koteas even mutters to himself in Greek at one point) that make it seem completely lived in. In combination with the character’s subtle, almost superstitious religiosity, and his inner conflict that rages perhaps even louder in the film’s quietest moments, Koteas’ performance is everything that “The Thin Red Line” is, at its greatest: urgent and desperate and devastatingly, bruisingly humane.
Martin Sheen as Kit in “Badlands” (1973)
Malick’s stunning debut presents a hurdle for those considering his filmography as a whole: it’s an utterly brilliant, crackling, poetic lovers-on-the-lam story that contains soon-to-be-trademark themes and images, but it’s also very unlike everything that came after in terms of its relative classicism. That’s true also of the performances, which are simultaneously extraordinary and impressive, and much less “Malickian” than almost all his others. Sheen’s Kit is a case in point. Based on a real-life person (killer Charles Starkweather), it’s almost archetypal now in its evocation of disaffected 1950s rebellion-turned-murderous: equal parts James Dean, Marlon Brando, and corner-store sociopath. In this way, unlike every other Malick film, “Badlands” refers to other films gone before, and it’s also more a product of the post “Bonnie & Clyde” 1970s independent filmmaking environment that produced it than any of his other films would be of their contemporary eras. A lot of that style of filmmaking was characterized by fiercely naturalistic and committed antihero performances, and Sheen’s Kit is a cornerstone example of that. Whether it’s a great Malick performance, if there is such a category, is debatable, but that it’s a great performance is not.
Hunter McCracken as Young Jack in “The Tree Of Life” (2011)
Still his only acting credit (on the DVD extras he seems genuinely uninterested in pursuing acting as a career ,which, if anything, makes me love this turn even more), Hunter McCracken turns in one of the best juvenile performances in recent memory as the younger version of Sean Penn‘s melancholic Jack. Stunningly natural and almost uncannily centered amid all the billowing curtains and sunlight-through-tree-branches, where Malick’s proxies (if that’s what Jack is) can sometimes feel recessive, so opaque as to be nearly translucent, McCracken is remarkably real. It’s the kind of honest, truthful, and simple performance that perhaps could only come from a non-professional, but that doesn’t mean there is no skill or craft involved, just that for once it seems like Malick has struck a perfect balance between identifying with a character and letting him grow and breathe as an autonomous creation. The effortless chemistry he has with his co-stars (Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler, who play his younger brothers, as well as the different energies that characterize his relationship his mother (Jessica Chastain) and his father (Brad Pitt), give “The Tree of Life” both its specificity and its universality. He is young Jack O’Brien, but his also every son of every parent, and his family is every family.
Sissy Spacek as Holly in “Badlands” (1973)
It was her first lead role, so you might have expected Sissy Spacek to bring the kind of freshness and disingenuity that the role of Holly, the 15-year-old girl who falls for the good looking bad boy who kills her Daddy, requires. But the true greatness of this performance is in how fearlessly she also embodies her character’s wrongheaded vacuity, her almost boundless capacity to be as chillingly heartless as she is naive. The contradictions come across brilliantly in the plaintive, self-justifying teen-romance-novel stylings of her voiceover, which repositions her as less the victim of a sociopathic, predatory young man, and more the self-mythologizing heroine of her own fiction. Holly’s empty-headed complicity in Kit’s increasingly deranged actions is still the best ever insight into the pathology of the spree-killing couple (a peculiarly American phenomenon that has been immortalized on film repeatedly, but perhaps never with the same kind of a clinical detachment and psychological clarity that Malick achieves here). There is always the danger of romanticizing or glamorizing this kind of psychotic behavior, but while “Badlands” is composed in images that are stirringly gorgeous to look at, and Spacek and Sheen are a criminally photogenic evocation of youthful Americana, Spacek’s cleverly self-involved performance makes their “epic” romance seem tawdry and childish and pathetic, which is exactly as it should be.
Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in “The New World” (2005)
If often Terrence Malick seems to use a love story as the rough shape on which to hang a much broader exploration of life’s more esoteric philosophical questions, “The New World” may be a good example of that impulse in reverse. Here the settling of America by white men, the vicissitudes they face, and the clash of worlds between them and the native peoples, are not just symbolized by the central love affair(s), in some ways they’re also there to serve as the love story’s profoundly dramatic backdrop. A lot of this is due to a wonderfully detailed performance from newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher, by whom you can almost feel Malick become more fascinated as the movie unfolds (indeed there’s an extended cut which mostly adds more to exploring her character). It’s unusually psychologically rich, for Malick, in that Pocahontas’ symbolic importance, while always key, somewhat recedes as the film imperceptibly morphs from a story in which she features to a story about her. Kilcher effortlessly commands our attention across all these various phases, from spirited native girl, to lovelorn reluctant ally, to”civilized” English wife, to mature young woman seeking the wisdom to choose the right kind of love in the face of what has to have been an almost unprecedented level of homesickness.
Nick Nolte as Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall in “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
It’s possible to think of Nolte’s towering Lt. Col. Tall in “The Thin Red Line” and remember only his monumental rages — snarling down the phone at the insubordinate Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) to send his men to their certain death “up that goddamn hill,” raspily growling at John Cusack‘s Captain Gaff that the men don’t need water and “if they pass out, they pass out.” But those are the sticky, memorable moments of a performance that is much more than that. Nolte’s prismatic turn gives off many flashes of fire, but it’s also one of the most conflicted and psychologically textured studies of the career soldier mentality — everything is here, from Tall’s fear (“I’m dying,” he says in voiceover, “Slow as a tree.”) to his braggadocio in front of his men (“We read Homer at The Point. In Greek.”) to his whispered admission that his pursuit of soldiering glory (and this is his last shot at it) has him “Shut up in a tomb. Can’t lift the lid. Playing a role I never conceived.” In a grandly humanist, sprawling film, it is oddly the tragic paradoxes of Nolte’s character that prove the most touching, and in his sometimes manic but often exhausted, running-on-empty performance we get the best expression of the hellishness but also the goddamn, soul-crushing weariness of war.
Jessica Chastain as Mrs O’Brien in “Tree Of Life” (2011)
It happens less frequently now that Malick seems to have moved into territory where he uses vast ensembles of already-established stars in ever more microscopic roles, but he has given several actors major breakouts. Jessica Chastain, playing the mother in “The Tree of Life” (and also the Mother, with a capital-M, as a kind of Platonic ideal) was legitimately one of those occasions, though whether she is in Malick’s debt for giving her this part, or he is in hers for making so much of it, is up for debate. This is a perfect example of the tension that makes discussion of Malick’s performances so complicated but also so fascinating. Certainly Mrs. O’Brien is not what we’d traditionally consider a great role — she is an ideal, a kind of abstraction, a memory, a fantasy even. Very little of the film actually comes from her point of view — none, in fact, if you discount the hushed scraps of voiceover she gets to whisper now and then. We do not inhabit the character any more than Jack can, in his memory. But somehow, and this does not always work like this (see almost every supporting character in “Knight of Cups” or “To The Wonder“) a remarkable actor can hit a kind of groove that resonates exactly on the right frequency and can give the flimsy, fluttery impressions of a character real dimension, depth, and solidity. Chastain’s turn here is both ethereal and real, and it announced her rightly as our next Great Actress, because you have to be this great to make a role that is essentially a memory so memorable.
We could go on and on — a few other performances we considered but cut for impenetrable and no doubt dubious reasons of our own: Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, and Adrien Brody in “The Thin Red Line“; Christian Bale and Christopher Plummer in “The New World”; Brooke Adams in “Days of Heaven”; Romina Mondello and Javier Bardem in “To The Wonder.” But we’re sure you have other favorites, let us know who they are below, and also tell us if you think Malick’s next film, dauntingly titled “Weightless,” is likely to afford us any more.