Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Terrence Malick is back in action and badder than ever, as “Song to Song” is now in theaters, where it’s playing to small crowds and predictably polarized results. Now, as the idiosyncratic auteur appears to be closing the book on one chapter of his career and moving on to another (the producers of “Radegund,” his next film, swear they have a script!), we asked our panel of critics if they’ve lost patience with the legendary filmmaker, and also where they’re hoping to see him go from here.
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
Terrence Malick wasn’t always polarizing. If you only made two movies during the 1970s, and those two movies were “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” that gives you a better batting average than virtually anybody — better than Spielberg, Fellini, Scorsese, Herzog, even Altman. And if you then waited 20 years to return, and did so with “The Thin Red Line,” you were nothing if not consistent with making masterpieces. I think Malick’s been divisive for only the last five years.
My problem with his recent work isn’t its airiness, or his improvising without a script. It’s not even the swirling. It’s the fact that his films end up saying very little that isn’t cliché. “To the Wonder”: It’s hard to be beautiful and lovesick in Oklahoma. “Knight of Cups”: It’s hard to be handsome and empty in Hollywood. “Song to Song”: It’s hard to be gorgeous and fickle in Austin (even with your private guitar lessons from Patti Smith). It’s an insult to the profundity of the ideas in Malick’s work — as recently as “Voyage of Time” — to say that his romantic trilogy is of the same caliber.
So “Radegund” has to be an improvement, if only because the movie will be about war, pacifism and the consequences of taking a principled stand. Even if Malick improvises the whole damn thing and finds room for twirling in Austria somewhere, it will be more substantial. I don’t want him to succumb to pretty nothingness.
Matt Prigge (@mattprigge), Metro US
God, no. I don’t get why people have given up on one of the medium’s purest iconoclasts, who’s pushing his singular voice in new and adventurous directions. These last three films in Third Wave Terry have been far trickier than the ones before to get a hold on, but judging them as self-parody seems so lazy. Among other things, their fast-cutting style captures something about today and our ravenous hunger for the dopamine rush of social media-assisted living. And they’re so intoxicating! And they’re getting funnier! “Song to Song” has The Gosling in drag, Val Kilmer cutting a speaker with a chainsaw and even what seems like an eff-you to detractors, who think he’s on infinite repeat (i.e., Patti Smith strumming a guitar and saying “I can spend hours on the same chord”).
That said, I am excited that he’s going back to the past with his next film. I get the impression that he sees “Song to Song” as him taking this particular wave of his style to its furthest point, much as “Tree of Life” did to Second Wave Terry. It’s all very exciting.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse) Freelance for Vulture, the Guardian, Rolling Stone
Hope for Malick springs eternal from this technically-human breast. Though I would count myself in the pro-“Song to Song” camp (at long last, the Malick-Freedia collab of my dreams has come to pass), I was disappointed with “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups.” In the days after “Cups” underwhelmed me, I returned to “The New World,” “Badlands,” and “Days of Heaven” to confirm that the genius that originally attracted me to Malick’s work was still there, and indeed it was. I concluded that the capacity to create great art could not have possibly vanished from the man entirely, only that he had chosen to follow his artistic muse into territory I’d rather not follow. By which I mean I consider most neo-Malick less “bad” than “extremely not my cup of tea.” I figured that he could just as easily wander back into the light, and he did with “Song to Song.”
Where am I hoping to see him go from here? Wherever he damn well pleases.
Elena Lazic (@elazic), Freelance for Little White Lies, The Seventh Row
I feel almost cheated by Malick: I loved the central part of “The Tree of Life” so much, but all of his following efforts made it look more and more like this beautiful consideration of the ‘way of nature’ and ‘way of grace’ was just a trick he then kept trying to pull off with diminishing results. “Knight of Cups” did test my patience, but “Song to Song” just might make me give up on him.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
I have no impatience with Terrence Malick, who keeps getting better; my only impatience is to see his next film, and for that matter, to see this new one again. I was somewhat impatient with “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” parts of which felt like halfway measures and compulsory routines, but “The Tree of Life” launched a rapturous outburst of invention in form and style that has few parallels in the history of cinema. Malick’s joy of filming — amplified by the freedom that his later manner grants his actors, cinematographer, and editors — is like that of a jazz-band leader who fuses composition and immediate creation, and for all the cosmic seriousness and earthly longing of his recent movies, that joy is the dominant emotion. I confess: sometimes I’m impatient with some of my favorite people, fellow-critics, for resisting or rejecting work that displays, at the very least, those traits which ought to be the prime virtues embraced by critics: originality and audacity. Yet unusual and daring work has always taken its lumps from critics, and film criticism today is better than ever–compared to most predecessors, Malick’s films have it good, and critics for the most part approach his films with an admirable openness. My real impatience is with my own nitpicky self for even fretting, and for doing so invidiously.
Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Vox
No, I haven’t lost patience with Malick yet, though I ran rather close with “Knight of Cups.” I hope this last trilogy of films got something out of his system, though. Malick’s deep understanding of philosophy and religion, and his ability to string together almost subconscious narrative elements to create something more atmospheric than narrative, is a very welcome element in a filmmaker telling American stories. I want to see him try to capture some other parts of the American experience again — or even try his hand at nonfiction filmmaking.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
I resent the fact that I have to say “yes,” because — in theory — I couldn’t be more excited by how Malick has leveraged his mythical status in order to tilt at windmills. But, as the good Mr. Rothkopf so astutely laid it out above, it’s hard for me to overlook the sheer banality of his “twirling” trilogy (even if I found “Voyage of Time” to be the most hollow of his recent efforts), or the transparentness of his shooting style (watching actors endlessly fondle each other on camera would be a more palatable experience if I felt that Malick were capable of cutting that footage into something grand enough to obscure the aimlessness of its creation). I read and respect what my more enthusiastic colleagues have to say about these films, I only wish that I were actually able to share in their experience.