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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006 06:31 am

Malick’s nature

Though he’s four-for-four, Terrence Malick surely is an acquired taste

The films of Terrence Malick are an acquired taste, and The New World is not likely to gain him any new fans. The New World is only Malick’s fourth feature in a career that spans more than 30 years, but, despite the Hollywood veneer, it is his most idiosyncratic. Audiences who aren’t accustomed to Malick’s penchant for dwarfing his actors with natural vistas may be bored by the slow pace and fragmented storytelling. You will, however, never see a more vivid re-creation of the settling of America. Malick’s first credited feature screenplay is for the thoroughly oddball truck-driver comedy Deadhead Miles (1972), starring Alan Arkin. After sitting of the shelf for a few decades, it finally popped up on late-night television. Pocket Money (1972), a contemporary Western about cattle rustlers, proved that Malick could pen a regular Hollywood feature. The Paul Newman-Lee Marvin starrer is one of those quirky gems from the ’70s that deserves a rediscovery. Malick’s jump to directing, Badlands (1973), is widely considered one of the greatest directorial debuts in film history. The Charles Starkweather-Caril Fugate murder spree of the late 1950s served as the basis for Malick’s exploration into existential madness. Badlands was not a hit, but it help bolster the growing careers of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Malick proved to have work habits as slow as the pace of his films, but his second feature, Days of Heaven (1978), was certainly worth the wait. Richard Gere stars as a steelworker on the run from the law who takes a job in a Texas wheatfield. An odd love triangle develops between the farm owner (Sam Shepard) and Gere’s lover (Brooke Adams), whom Gere passes off as his sister. Malick typically strips the story of drama, focusing more on his visual canvas. Believe it or not, the flowing wheatfields rank among the cinema’s most enthralling images. And then Malick disappeared. The Thin Red Line (1998), a poetic meditation on war’s encroachment on nature, ended Malick’s 20-year exile. Excitement over his triumphant return was quashed by disappointment that he dared to deliver another Malick film. He isn’t Steven Spielberg, so why was a traditional war film expected? Instead he is an artistic visionary of the caliber of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. There may be World War II movies with more action, but none is better. Malick is now four-for-four, and we can expect No. 5 in about seven years.
New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Feb. 7): Doom, Just Like Heaven, Elizabethtown, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
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