When something important happens in one of Terrence Malick's films, chances are it occurs amid blades of grass.
In "Badlands," Mr. Sargis (Warren Oates) punishes his daughter Holly (radiant, young Sissy Spacek) for seeing ne'er-do-well Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) by taking her dog out and shooting it — in a grassy patch. Later, as Kit and Holly run from the law, their Cadillac kicks up clouds of dirt as they cross the dry Montana prairie.
In "Days of Heaven," ill-fated lovers Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) find plenty amid the waving tall grasses and wheat fields of the Texas Panhandle. Then comes heartbreak as Sam Shepard's laconic Farmer takes a fancy to Abby, and ultimately there's betrayal, as Shepard's character unearths the truth and allows his locust-infested fields to burn into stubble.
In "The New World," Malick's latest, barely five minutes pass before John Smith (Colin Farrell) and his fellow explorers tramp through the tall Virginia grass, their first steps into pre-colonial America. Smith's fateful meeting with Pocohontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) happens — where else — as he meanders through a field.
And 1998's "The Thin Red Line" was one long trudge through the grass. Its lengthy second act — one of the most extraordinary battle sequences ever put on screen — placed viewers in the midst of American troops' bloody advance up the lush green hills of Guadalcanal, the long grasses filled with lunacy and the stench of death.
Malick's work has been all but defined by these grassy passages, and the long blades serve to conceal ugly realities. That such horrors can be hidden in the tranquil scenery forms a core of Malick's heartbreaking masterworks.
Malick, after all, is American cinema's Man of Nature — the movie equivalent of Thoreau, or maybe Rousseau. It's easy to sympathize with Malick's existential characters as they battle against authority or each other. But in each of his films, the real conflict is between man (and it usually is a man) and the wild: the fundamental irrationality of human nature pitted against the utter chaos of Mother Nature.
Malick quietly casts the natural world as a major supporting character, and wraps his stories in it. Key moments unfold in the fields and woods and on the water, which probably explains why his few indoor scenes — like the hostage episode in "Badlands" — feel so painfully claustrophobic.
Malick is also cinema's J.D. Salinger, a reclusive intellect whose low public profile has underscored his aura of intrigue. A Waco, Texas native, he went from the oil fields to studying philosophy at Harvard, and eventually on to a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. He left without finishing his doctorate and turned to the film world while teaching philosophy at M.I.T. Though hardly the path of a typical director, it might explain why his films are laced with dense, sometimes ponderous, narration that often seems to meander as the movie's narrative struggles to move forward. (The notable exceptions come from Malick's female characters: Spacek's dime-store-romance voiceover in "Badlands," and Kilcher's earth-mother talk in "New World.") More always happens than can be seen on screen.
Sadly, Malick's body of work is slim and his work habits quixotic. After 1973's "Badlands," it took him another five years to complete "Days of Heaven," in part because he ditched his script, let his cast improvise for nearly a year and took another two years to edit it. Then came a 20-year respite in France before "Thin Red Line," whose entire cast was sent off to boot camp before tackling their roles. Another seven years passed before "New World" was ready for the screen.
While hardly prolific, Malick more than compensates with an utter mastery of his craft. His films are singularly stunning: technically flawless and seamlessly compiled. With help from such visual masters as Emmanuel Lubezki and John Toll, Malick's works are gorgeous to behold — even when the results are gruesome, as when perfect Steadicam shots transport you along for a carnage-filled creep through the grasses of Guadalcanal.
And while less renowned than counterparts like Stanley Kubrick or Francis Ford Coppola, Malick has effectively launched film careers (Sheen and Spacek's, notably) and can easily attract the industry's most talented actors, most of whom will endure anything to work for the man.
His films are also unrepentantly intellectual, which may be why many bits of Malick's artistry end up rehashed in lesser Hollywood fare. Not only did "True Romance's" Tony Scott lift haunting, sweet xylophone strains of Carl Orff's "Gassengauer" from "Badlands," but Quentin Tarantino essentially hoisted the whole story, even a portion of Spacek's narrative. (In fact, "Badlands" spawned an entire knock-off genre of killer-on-the-road movies, "Kalifornia," "Doom Generation" and "Natural Born Killers" among them.)
What no knockoff can capture is Malick's endless fascination with that tension between man and the outside world — never more clearly displayed than in "Thin Red Line."
Though putatively a war movie, the battle in "Line" between U.S. infantry and their mostly unseen Japanese foes is a sideshow. Malick's real purpose was to explore the very nature of battle — how human conflict not only destroys its participants but the world around it. "What is this war in the heart of nature?" asks one narrator at the film's very start. Endless, jarring shots of artillery shells blasting away ridgetops signal Malick's curiosity about war's devastating impact on the natural world, how the human struggle for supremacy is the most unnatural of acts. Consider Sean Penn's First Sgt. Welsh, whose cynicism leads him to quietly pull soldier after soldier away from the front. Observing the carnage, he simply concludes, "Property. The whole ... thing's about property."
Why else would two AWOL soldiers at the film's beginning be hiding among peaceful (and devoutly Christian) Melanesian natives? Why else do troops encounter a oblivious Solomon Islander wandering away from the battlefield as they slog toward it? It is Malick's romcom-era rewrite of Rousseau's "noble savage" proposition.
"The New World" travels in similar territory, though sometimes more subtly. (Sometimes too subtly; the first hour and a half falters on endless narrative breaks and sluggish pacing.) The contrast between English explorers and native tribes is Malick's obvious point of reference, but he unfurls it in brilliantly subtle ways — perhaps none more so than when the door to the British fort is pulled open and the frame transitions from the lush green outside to a dead, grey, muddy world inside, where the sailors are dying and nothing grows. And it defines the film's most stunning shot, when one of Pocahontas' tribesman on a visit to England stares with silent puzzlement at a sculpted tree in a Renaissance garden.
Human insolence is also on Malick's mind. Blind pride virtually seeps from the mouth of "New World's" Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer) as he tells his charges, "God has given us a promised land, a great inheritance" — a clear contrast to Pocahontas' words for John Smith shortly after: "You have no evil. I belong to you." Such unintended malice enfolds Sheen's nihilistic, fame-obsessed killer Kit, whose life is guided by his own insane rules of engagement. ("With lawmen it would've been different. They were out there to get a job done and they deserved a fair chance.")
Yet as much as Malick's films rely on this fundamental tension created by the primal conflict, he never quite resolves it. Perhaps his best effort comes at the end of "New World," when John Smith fills with remorse as he eventually realizes his natural woman has been lost to British civility. "I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest," he says. "It seems it's the only truth."
A truth, Malick seems to keep saying, most often found in the grass.
After seven years, MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné is still trying to decode "The Thin Red Line."