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Have People Lost Patience With Terrence Malick? — IndieWire Critics Survey

With "Song to Song" currently playing to half-empty theaters, we asked critics if they are still interested in the once-mythical filmmaker.

“Song to Song”

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.

READ MORE: Terrence Malick Makes A Rare Appearance At SXSW 2017 And Talks “Song To Song” And His Artistic Process

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.

Terrence Malick's Radegund

“Radegund”

Reiner Bajo

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.

What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

Most Popular Answer: “Personal Shopper” & “Get Out” (Tie)

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Comments

Daniella Isaacs

As someone who likes “Late Godard” more than “Classic Godard”, I have to say I’ve all but given up on Malick. I was with him through “To the Wonder,” one film more than many, but “Knight of Cups” just annoyed the hell out of me. People may think he’s critiquing the objectification of women and the shallow postmodern condition, but that film was really an exemplification of both. The IMAX documentary wasn’t much better.

Otto

That Mr. Rothkip reduces the theme of Knight of Cups to, “It’s hard to be handsome and empty in Hollywood,” then he needs more education – both in film and philosophy – and more life experience. Read some Heidegger.

Jack

For years Malick has gotten away with hiding behind lush production design, so no one will notice that he never bothers to create compelling characters or stories. The woman who directed Twilight had the same problem: she was a great production designer, but she had a lame story, terrible characters and terrible actors. Malick is just Catherine Hardwicke without the vampires. In future, let Malick be the production designer for a director who actually has a story to tell.

Daniel DeLago

Generations from now, these same critics will be praising his body of work. Just like Kubrick, Malick will be looked at as a brilliant filmmaker posthumously. He’s one of my all-time favorite auteurs.

    Barry Sharf

    Ditto, its been year I am following him and really enjoying their style.

septimus

The moviegoer doesn’t have to wait till his death — we can re-appraise his films any time! I didn’t like _The Thin Red Line_ the first time, but it was a revelation the 2nd-7th times. It just wasn’t what I expected from Malick — he has grown and moved beyond his first phase and I had to catch up. I had the same experience with _Knight of Cups_, which was quite a departure from _The Tree of Life_ and _To the Wonder_. (It didn’t help that the projection seemed all wrong during my first viewing.) _Knight_ is much more of a surrealist experience; many of the scenes seem to take place in the protagonist’s head.
Our relationship to cinema is strange. Most people seem to watch a film once and make a snap judgement, when millions of hours go into creating them. I encourage everyone to watch Malick’s films multiple times. After all, what is left to see? He is, in my view, the one essential active filmmaker we have left. I’m thrilled I’ll get to rewatch _Days of Heaven_ on the big screen tomorrow.

septimus

As for whether or why the *critic* should be patient (i.e., they should invest in engaging and championing Malick’s films), that is a completely different question. Box office doesn’t matter. The art house critics have propped up Jia Zhangke, who seems to churn out one lousy picture after another, for 17 years, despite the fact that most of them couldn’t sell 3000 tickets in the U.S. Then again, Bela Tarr’s titanic _Werckmeister Harmonies_, the film that christened and defined our 21st century, also failed to sell that many tickets. (_To the Wonder_, practically a French-language film, did much better.) Why does a filmmaker gets championed? The critic may have been invested in that director for a long time. There may be easy selling points. Jia’s _Unknown Pleasure_ has all sorts of button-pushing platitudes one can check off — anti Chinese government tyranny, anti-American militarism, etc. I happen to agree with its issues, but they were so amateurishly and lazily expressed, I merely felt insulted. I want a film that shows me a new way of looking at the world, which Malick’s films consistently do. His new films, in their quest for enlightenment and transcendence, frequently evoke Christianity. This is not endearing to many — there is really is a knee-jerk anti-Christian bias in the art-house cinema circuit. I am hardly a religious nut, having turned my back on the Catholic Church 36 years ago, but I have to be absolutely blind not to see that bias.
I like the fact that the panelists in this article have such contrasting views. I don’t like the title of the article, which seems to be begging for a master-narrative. Movie critics used to have huge, public fights about directors and films they loved and hated. The Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris feuds were legend. These days there seem much more of a tendency to come to some consensus, arrive at simplistic narratives. We should be more sophisticated than that.

FITLBOX

His movies haven’t told a story since The Thin Red Line. That, Badlands, and Days of Heaven will be what stand the test of time, but I doubt his new Hollywood stuff will stick much.

Jeeeeez

Perfect example of most critics underestimating an audience… This film has been out for four days on four screens.

Leonard

I agree with Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” being one of the most underrated films ever. It’s Tarr’s masterpiece together with “The Turin Horse”, but critics mostly missed the boat…just as they did with Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups”. Both are deep, intelligent, formally inventive features, that go to places to Hollywood film has ever been, but Malick is able to use Hollywood actors, which is subversive in itself.

But what are they really about ? Few people seem to understand them, but it’s actually not that difficult. And, no, you don’t need to read Heidegger to get it – few people understand that stuff anyway.
“To the Wonder” is about the love in its different forms: The love of humans to each other, of man to nature, of man to God, of women to men, men to women. It’s about the fragility of this strange feeling that only humans are able to experience. This feeling of love can be found, lost & re-gained. The film shows how difficult it is for us humans to keep loving or bering faithful, because we constantly change.
“Knight of Cups” is actually easier to understand in my opinion, because it has a stronger sense of structure and a central symbol (tarot cards) that serves as an organizing principle, too. The movie is just like a session with tarot cards. They tell you who you are what you could be. It’s a movie about losing one’s way and searching for re-invention. It’s about something every human being faces, just like that phenomenon ‘love’: What and who do I want to be? Who I am? What is the good life to live? The hero in “Knight of Cups” is in a deep crisis and is looking for a new start. He will find it at the end.

Both films are not as radically different that Malick’s early work, but they are more visual and less story-driven. But they have stories and conflicts and solutions and development and everything. It’s only non-traditional.

The form is exciting and inventive, too: Malick tries to marry cinema with all the other Fine Arts and Visual Arts to create a meta-visual language where dance, music, photography, sculpture, sound, performance, architecture, design, theatre are all equally part of telling ‘the story’.The films are maybe closer to video installations in art museums than to traditional narrative cinema, but they do things that video installations can’t do: They develop characters and subtle stories.

Malick should be applauded as a major cinematic explorer.

Leonard

I agree with Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” being one of the most underrated films. It’s Tarr’s masterpiece together with “The Turin Horse”, but critics mostly missed the boat…just as they did with Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups”. Both are deep, intelligent, formally inventive features, that go to places no Hollywood film has ever been, but Malick is able to use Hollywood actors, which is subversive in itself.
But what are they really about ? Few people seem to understand them, but it’s actually not that difficult. And, no, you don’t need to read Heidegger to get it – few people understand that stuff anyway, probably not even Malick.
“To the Wonder” is about love in its different forms: The love of humans to each other, of man to nature, of man to God, of women to men, men to women… It’s about the fragility of this strange feeling that only humans are able to experience. This feeling of love can be found and lost. The film shows how difficult it is for us humans to keep loving or being faithful, because we constantly change.
“Knight of Cups” is actually easier to understand in my opinion, because it has a stronger sense of structure and a central symbol (the tarot cards) that serves as an organizing principle, too. The movie is just like a session with tarot cards. They tell you who you are what you could be. It’s a movie about losing one’s way and searching for re-invention. It’s about something every human being faces, just like that phenomenon ‘love’: What and who do I want to be? What is the good life? The hero in “Knight of Cups” is in a deep existential crisis and is looking for a new start. He will find it at the end.
Both films are not as radically different than Malick’s early work, but they are more visual and less story-driven. But they do have stories and conflicts and solutions and development and everything. It’s only non-traditional storytelling.
The form is exciting and inventive: Malick tries to marry cinema with all the other Fine Arts and Visual Arts to create a meta-arts language where dance, music, photography, sculpture, sound, performance, architecture, design, theatre are all equally part of telling ‘the story’.The films are maybe closer to video installations in art museums than to traditional narrative cinema, but they do things that video installations can’t do: They develop characters and subtle stories.
Malick should be applauded as a major cinematic explorer.

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