A look at the work of filmmaker Terrence Malick with an eye towards a Toronto International Film Festival retrospective as posted to The Toronto Film Scene.

Originally published on The Toronto Film Scene – June 3, 2011.

In an art form like cinema, with characters like Kubrick, Fellini and Gilliam, it takes some doing to be referred to as enigmatic. Yet somehow, Terrence Malick has earned that title above almost any other filmmaker working in the mainstream.

I suppose that’s just the natural by-product of taking one’s sweet time in making only the pictures that appeal to one’s personal sensibilities, but there’s more to Malick’s art than simply being choosy.

Malick’s canon has slowly and methodically been cobbled together over nearly 40 years in a very intentional manner, with a lot of commonality between projects even if that commonality comes with up to 20 years between films.

It is this reason why it’s so fascinating to see his films all in one place for once, as TIFF has decided to do in honour of the release of his latest, The Tree of Life .

In poring through Malick’s cinematic catalogue, it’s easy to see not only the growth of n intelligent, skilled and passionate auteur, but you also see the work of a man trying to explore common threads such as loss, disillusionment and acceptance over the course of a cinematic lifetime.

With Badlands , Malick burst onto the scene in 1973 alongside other heroes of the New American cinema. It’d be easy to look at Badlands in the same vein as the other films released that year likeMean Streets and American Graffiti ““ early, youthful films by artists who would go on to change the rules of cinema. But what stands out most about Badlands is how mature a film it is.

While it drips with a youthful spite as personified by Martin Sheen’s character, Kit, there’s never a moment where it seems like the characters are running rampant an dictating the course of the story.

Malick’s design is to make a killing spree look simultaneously as an act of misguided spontaneity. while at the same time making his characters and the audience aware of the strain being placed on them by staying on the run.

While very much a film about youth, Badlands rarely comes across as a film made by a young filmmaker, which is possibly the by-product of Malick being 30 at the time his debut was released.

It is devoid of many of the pop sensibilities that came to define the films of his contemporaries (especially if you line it up next to the two aforementioned 1973 titles) while at the same time wholly subscribing to the idea of making American films that don’t particularly subscribe to the traditional Hollywood narrative.

Badlands is most fascinating for being a succinct introduction to the world of Terrence Malick. It’s a world where men and women walk a fine line between expectations and disillusionment before a backdrop of stunning visual artistry.

Malick returned five years later with Days of Heaven , possibly one of the prettiest movies ever committed to celluloid.

Again, Malick hunkers down on the repercussions of the foolish choices made by a young man. This time, it’s Richard Gere tempting fate by sacrificing love for the promise of a prosperous and easy lifestyle.

The majority of the film is spent out in the fields with just about every shot coming during the “˜magic’ sunrise or sunset hours, The result is that the entire film is draped with a golden finish and feels almost dreamlike.

It’s a decided change of pace from the cat-and-mouse of Badlands , but Days of Heaven sets Malick up for a grander stage. It marks the emergence of a filmmaker who uses a grand scope to tell a very intimate and internal struggle.

This is the Terrence Malick that would emerge from the cinematic wilderness almost 20 years later for 1998′s The Thin Red Line .

Come back to Toronto Film Scene tomorrow for a break down of Terrence Malick’s later work and a sneak peek into The Tree of Life.