Malick’s ‘Wonder’ Comes 40 Years After ‘Badlands’ Debut

Terrence Malick, for whom the phrase “iconoclastic filmmaker” could have been invented, used to disappear for decades between his dark and mysterious films.

Lately he seems to be making up for lost time.

Now 70, he’s released three movies in the past eight years: “The New World” (2005), “The Tree of Life” (2011) and “To the Wonder,” which opened last month.

Two other projects have been announced, one of them, starring Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett, is reportedly in post-production. All of which make it a good time to look at this publicity-shy director’s remarkable body of work.

Malick started out his career in 1973 with a near-masterpiece, “Badlands,” following it five years later with “Days of Heaven” and then, famously, waited 20 years to make his next movie, “The Thin Red Line.”

Post-“Badlands,” he granted virtually no interviews and did not even allow his picture to be taken. As recluses go, he made Stanley Kubrick, J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon seem like publicity hogs.

Criterion has just put out an excellent DVD restoration of “Badlands.” The movie holds up extremely well. I find Malick’s subsequent films top-heavy with religioso hooha, but his debut feature represents the best of Malick with little of the worst.

Murder Spree

Loosely based on the notorious 1958 Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate nine-day murder spree, and starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek at the beginnings of their careers, it’s a spooky, worthy cinematic counterpart to “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Malick had recently graduated from the inaugural class at the American Film Institute, after a pointy-headed post-Harvard sojourn as a Rhodes Scholar and as a philosophy instructor at M.I.T. (His English translation of a Martin Heidegger tome was published in 1969).

He wrote a couple of produced screenplays, including “Pocket Money” (1972) with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, and even wrote an early draft of “Dirty Harry” (presumably without the help of Heidegger).

Tired of seeing his work mucked over, he exerted fanatic control on “Badlands.” The film was largely financed independently by producer Edward Pressman, whose family’s toy business provided much of the backing. When money ran out, Malick suspended work on the film for the better part of a year while he wrote screenplays to raise cash.

‘Blazing Saddles’

When Warner Brothers, who bought the film, previewed “Badlands” in Los Angeles, they double-billed it with Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles.” According to an interview on the DVD, a studio executive told Pressman that “Badlands” received “the worst preview cards in the history of Warners.”

I first caught “Badlands” while I was a film student at the University of Southern California, shortly after it was completed. Malick -- not yet then in full recluse mode -- mixed it up afterwards with the students. Looking back on it, it was like being present at a yeti sighting.

Malick’s “Seventh Seal” persona does not apparently extend to his film sets, where he is by all accounts open and gregarious. Sheen talks in a DVD interview from 2012 about how Malick had to cajole the then 31-year-old actor to play a role originally written for a 19-year-old. (The age was rewritten upward to accommodate him).

Spacek says Malick didn’t want the actors to research the Starkweather-Fugate story. He didn’t want the murdering lovers-on-the-run to come across as patently depraved.

“We like our villains to be villainous,” she says, and describes the pin-drop silence with which audiences greeted the film at its debut at the New York Film Festival. The murder scenes, with their jaunty, comic matter-of-factness, unnerved audiences accustomed to frothing, full-blown psychopathology in the movies.

Today, though, audiences tend to laugh along with the movie.

“It’s a different society now,” Spacek all-too-tellingly observes.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).

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