Taking very seriously their remit to remind us all during these ugly times that there are still beautiful things in the world, last week, The Criterion Collection released Terrence Malick‘s astonishingly gorgeous 2005 epic “The New World.” It’s a film that didn’t connect when it was first released, and indeed there are those of us who are slow to warm to it even now, but none can deny its exquisite visuals. That care with shotmaking is of course a hallmark of Malick’s: “The New World” was lensed by his recent regular collaborator and multi-Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, but there’s no question that it’s informed by the director’s own visual sensibilities. His eye for a gorgeous vista, the patience and detail of his approach, and his famous use of natural light and dramatic locations — be they heartland Americana or exotic, far-flung jungles — have, until very recently, been legendary.
His last film, “Knight Of Cups,” played to an even more muted response than that which originally greeted “The New World.” It seemed a little been-there-done-that — more beauty shots of twirling ladies while a palimpsestic voiceover murmurs about faith and God and Fathers. But actually, it marked a more dramatic schism from what came before than many understood: It is really Malick’s first primarily urban film. That might not make such a difference to another filmmaker, but Malick, frequently misunderstood as being more interested in nature than in mankind (when in fact his most powerful films are deeply involved in their interrelation), feels unmoored amid the flyovers and studio lots and rooftops parties of LA. And yet it is, again, beautifully shot.
All of which goes to prove that the greatness of Malick’s films doesn’t lie in the micro, but in the way the separate moments are woven together into the kind of glistening tapestry he gave us with “The New World.” And that might seem a strange, counterintuitive way to introduce a list of Malick’s greatest individual shots, but it does go some way to explaining the choices. These are not the most iconically Malickian shots, nor the most famous, nor the most beautiful — for the last, you could drive yourself crazy trying to choose and still end up with a list of about 1,000. Instead, these are the 15 shots that have some combination of all those elements, but that also serve a wider thematic purpose within, if it’s not too dirty a word to use in the context of Terrence Malick, the story.
It really is a joy to examine this body of work on such a minute level, and there are certainly very few directors whose filmographies could withstand such close scrutiny. But Malick’s (erstwhile) painstaking approach means that you can slice up his films in a multitude of ways and still find so much to be amazed by. Whether his use of elemental imagery — burning houses for fire; underwater swimming for water; dense foliage, sand and dirt for earth; and fields of waving corn and heads of whipping hair for wind — or the dance-like movement of his characters, attracting and repelling each other like magnets, Malick at his best is the ultimate show-don’t-tell filmmaker. Here are the 15 single shots from Malick films that tell us the most by showing.
Burning Dollhouse — “Badlands” (1973), DP: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Malick uses elemental imagery — earth, wind, fire and water — across every one of his films. It’s one way that his debut, “Badlands,” which in most other respects is the most atypical of his films, is very much of a piece with what came after. And this shot of the doll’s house in Holly’s (Sissy Spacek) bedroom is kind of a ground-zero for all the times Malick will burn down houses in the future, either literally or metaphorically. Here the result of Holly’s lover Kit (Martin Sheen) covering his tracks after murdering her father (Warren Oates), it represents the immolation of innocence and of childhood, but also the anti-establishment, antisocial rebellion that archetypal murderous-lovers-on-the-run Holly and Kit embody — the irony being, of course, that the romantic idea of rebellion they cling to is in itself so very childish.
Swimming Dogs — “Knight Of Cups” (2015), DP: Emmanuel Lubezki
The very thing that makes it hard to embrace Malick’s latest and most frustratingly diffuse film is also what makes it difficult (for me anyway) to judge it too harshly: It feels like a film made in the throes of existential, late-life panic. The difference between it and his most overtly philosophical previous works is that in ‘Cups,’ it feels like Malick can’t even sense the wonder anymore, and it’s only regret that connects him to the infinite mysteries of a lifetime’s worth of memories. So here Lubezki’s stunning imagery is most often used to highlight the shallowness and the vapidity of existence — industry parties, strip clubs, endlessly twirling, faceless women. This shot, however, while probably the silliest of all those images (dressed-up dogs chasing tennis balls and chew toys into a swimming pool) somehow approaches something else, something sublime in its simple joyfulness. It’s a jolt of unexamined, un-self-conscious vitality amid so much navel-gazing, and in a film so characterized by despair, it feels oddly hopeful.
Wounded Bird — “The Thin Red Line” (1998), DP: John Toll
Coming out the same year as Spielberg‘s “Saving Private Ryan,” Malick’s masterpiece was on the opposite end of the spectrum, to the frustration of many who expected more in the way of bang-crash bloodiness. In fact, its reputation as the real beginning of Malick’s tendency to favor flora and fauna over human dynamics, and philosophizing over action, is so ingrained that rewatching it, it’s eternally surprising just how much blood and guts and explosions there actually are. It’s not that the classic war-movie elements are absent, but that they’re counterpointed with peculiar only-Malick-would shots like this one. A wounded bird, contrasted with the many spectacular flying birds we see throughout, flaps pathetically in the dirt. But its placement here, in the midst of perhaps the most violent and suspenseful set piece as the squadron comes under costly attack, elevates the whole sequence into a grander statement about man vs. nature vs. man’s nature.
Locust Swarm — “Days of Heaven” (1978), DP: Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler
Not just one of the most indelible shots in Malick’s oeuvre, but one of the most iconic in American cinema, all the pain of Malick’s famous insistence on natural light and magic-hour filmmaking would have been worth it even if it had only yielded this one shot. With the incongruous mansion looming in the background and Richard Gere‘s duplicitous drifter anchoring the foreground, all bathed in that golden-pinkish light, there’s something eternal about this shot. The locusts (actually peanut shells, apparently), of course, represent the old Malick staple of the untamability of nature, but here, en masse and rendering the air visible, they also take on a moral, narrative dimension as a biblical plague somehow called down by Gere’s no-good harbinger of doom.
Hands Cradling A Baby’s Foot — “The Tree Of Life” (2011), DP: Emmanuel Lubezki, 2nd Unit DP: Peter Simonite
It was even used as the film’s poster, so it’s hard to understand how this exceptionally simple macro shot still has such emotive power. But it really is a hall-of-fame shot which actually came, under the stewardship of Lubezki, from 2nd Unit DP Peter Simonite: There is something about the tender translucent pinkness of the hands, cupped in an almost prayer-like pose, and the infinitely sharp detail of the creases on the baby’s foot and his tiny toes that encapsulates so much about the vulnerability of new life and the wonder of parenthood. And that the whole image somewhat recalls a baby in his mother’s womb makes this single shot a near-perfect synecdoche: a part that illustrates the whole.