Oh, I better come out and say it: I love Terrence Malick. I think he's one of the few filmmakers who has completely and utterly captured filmic form. "The Thin Red Line" was, to me, an astonishing experience; beautiful, horrific and the best movie of the 90s. "Badlands" is the best lovers-on-the-lam movie I've ever seen (it certainly makes "True Romance" look like a gimmicky fraud of a movie). Malick somehow manages to make everything seem painfully beautiful: his landscape, his actors, his dialogue. There's something always elegiac about his movies.
There's a picture of James Dean I saw from his youth -- a baseball team photo -- and the caption said something about how it captured his face, and in it, wisdom and sadness far beyond his years. That's what Malick does in his films and particularly in this film.
He must have been a fan of James Dean (probably one of the reasons he chose to make "Badlands," as a sort of homage), but not in the sense that coolness comes from a perfectly combed coiffure, a red leather jacket (which it wasn't -- it was a windbreaker) and a dark brood. There's a similar story here to that of "Giant," set on a farm with that remarkable house, two men and one girl. Only "Giant" didn't have a philosophizing and very strange little girl. It was also an overblown soap opera and while this film is, I guess, a melodrama, it certainly isn't melodramatic.
If Malick is anyone in the film, he's Sam Shapard; watching his love through a lens. Malick uses Manz as a sort of channel. If this is indeed some fashion of his own story, Malick tells us through her, with he visualized by Shepard, which is a somewhat brilliant approach. Manz is strangely philosophical; at once blunt and abstract. The story is obviously centered around her -- I don't see why this wouldn't be obvious -- but she's pushed into the background, commenting on the characters and informing us like God from above.
As always with Malick, his film is mesmerizing and hypnotic. I was surprised that the film was only a little over an hour-and-a-half. The great Ennio Morricone created a wonderful score for this film that seems to forebode impending doom. Unlike his more famous spaghetti western scores, it's never overly-flamboyant. And the cinematography, listed as belonging to Nestor Almendros, but well-known to be at least substantially contributed to by Haskell Wexler, is so much like an oil painting that it's just about liquid film. I'd be willing to pay a lot of money to see this one on the big screen.
It might seem obvious to state that this film is a transition between "Badlands" and "The Thin Red Line," after all it was the middle film. But this film has moments, especially in the finale, that are surprisingly close to that of "Badlands" and this is the film where Malick fully mastered his approach of lush, visual poetry told at a languid pace that never seems boring, since you're fully within the film;s grasp.
Pauline Kael said in her review that "the film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it." And Charles Taylor, always following Kael's lead (even from beyond the grave), said of Malick's two 1970s films, "Next to the work of Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and Mazursky from that period, they're pallid jokes."
What never fails to get me furious is when someone viciously attacks a director, like Malick, for being self-indulgent. Of course it's self-indulgent, he's telling a story that means something to him and trying to share what he feels with us. Malick certainly isn't trying to alienate people, and if you are alienated by his films, well, don't watch them. Malick is a filmmaker like Kubrick, but more fluid and much less abrasive. I mean, if you're going to aggressively attack a filmmaker, aggressively attack someone who is aggressive on his side. Directors like Malick use abstractions to engage their audiences more fully than most. By leaving things -- often feelings -- open to interpretation, the film becomes more intimate.
Certainly one of the most enduring films from the 70s, this is a masterwork.