Terrence Malick and the Tao of the Sojourning Soul, Part 1: Spiritual Voices

"Sometimes I imagine that it is 1983 and Terrence Malick is somewhere in Paris, living a quiet, normal life..."
Reno Lauro

Sometimes I imagine that it is 1983 and Terrence Malick is somewhere in Paris, living a quiet, normal life. As he walks to one of his favorite cafes, he catches a glimpse of Gilles Deleuzes’ Cinéma 1: L’image-mouvemont in a bookstore window. Naturally, he’s curious. In an intellectual era dominated by Theory, the only other book of philosophy that had taken up cinema as a way to do philosophy was The World Viewed, written by his friend and one time academic advisor Stanley Cavell. I imagine that Malick seeks out Deleuze, who is lecturing at the University of Paris VIII. Two years later, he buys a copy of Deleuze’s Cinéma 2: L’image-temps. Deleuze confirmed what Malick has long suspected, but either forgotten or was distracted from in the hedonistic atmosphere of 1970s L. A. chronicled by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls—cinema “thinks” philosophically.

Other times I imagine it’s much earlier, that it’s the autumn of 1977 and Malick has yet to lock picture on Days of Heaven. Richard Gere has filmed and stared in Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar in the months since principal photography wrapped; it will still be another year before Days of Heaven premieres and a few months longer still before Malick wins best director at the Cannes Film Festival. While rummaging through a patchouli-scented L. A. bookstore to do research for a new script—enigmatically (yet practically) entitled Q—he finds a copy of Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography. The book’s Tao-like aphorisms are reminiscent of The Book of Tea, which influential Japanese philosopher Tomonobu Imamichi has suggested strongly influenced Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology. The prospect of thinking philosophically about making cinema must have been particularly alluring to Malick. By all accounts, Malick was a promising philosophy student at Harvard. He spent a year teaching philosophy at MIT and traveled to Germany to meet and translate a work by Heidegger—The Essence of Reasons. The same year of his publication, Malick was part of the inaugural class at the AFI conservatory.

Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography will then prove to be the impetus that will cause Malick to scrap a dialogue-burdened version of Days of Heaven with dull performances and begin work on voiceover experiments with actress Linda Manz. Malick’s newfound Bressonian tutelage would allow him to focus on faces, bodies, and the world revealed between shots and sequences—But then I stop such imagining.

What does it profit me, or anyone, to imagine the private life of another human being? The films of Terrence Malick were made for us to contemplate the depths of human existence and the vast mysteries of the universe, not to idly indulge in vain thoughts and imaginings. In actuality, it is the very same spirit that desires to box and own some knowledge about the man, or any part of entertainment consumer culture for that matter, that is also thwarted by the mystery and impermanence of his films. The desire to learn more about the private life of the director is a trap. It’s a distraction from a far richer reality. As Lao-tzu writes, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao / The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”1 Seeking details about Malick’s private sojourn is a distraction from the far more insightful possibility. The films of Terrence Malick should be approached as the Tao of our sojourning souls.


A new and radical assessment of this cinematic Tao is especially important as a remnant of cinephiles await the release of Malick’s The Knight of Cups (2015) and Weightless (2016)—the second and third films in the director’s far more personal post-exilic triptych that began with To the Wonder (2012). His first post-exilic triptych began with The Thin Red Line (1998), after a now fabled 20-year self-imposed exile from Hollywood, and includes The New World (2005)—the masterful ode to the dawn of the American experience—and the Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life (2011). The contemporary and urban nature of this new trilogy will no doubt demand a major reassessment of what we think about Malick’s oeuvre and even prompt a long overdue rethinking of the loosely applied term “Malickian.”

Malick’s three historical epics can be seen as extensions and refinements of the cinematic techniques and philosophical concerns initiated during the laborious filming and editing process for Days of Heaven (1978). Indeed, this was one of film critic Roger Ebert’s chief criticisms of The Thin Red Line; Ebert believed the film was uncertain and derivative. However, it’s now apparent that in actuality Days of Heaven is the film that feels like an artist’s compilation of uncertain notebook sketches and detail studies. Yes, it’s a film with the full backing of a studio at the height of a cultural and artistic revolution and so its pictorial scope is sweeping and expansive, but it was also a film born from conflict, change and exploration. It’s a film about soulless wanderers that, in retrospect, itself is searching for a greater calling beyond it’s own celluloid artifice. While the film was no doubt unlike anything coming out of Hollywood at the time and simultaneously so attuned to the mood of its time, it still lacks a confidence of purpose that is present in Malick’s films from The Thin Red Line onward.

By all accounts, principle photography on Days of Heaven was difficult and Malick spent close to two years editing the picture with editor Billy Weber. Ultimately, it’s Linda Manz’s voiceover which gives the film a unifying structure. The film begins with: “Me and my brother. It used to be just me and my brother. We used to do things together. We used to have fun. We used to roam the streets. There was people suffering for the pain and hunger.” Much has been written about the film’s voiceover, however what hasn’t been mentioned—in light of Malick’s later work—is how it is “narrative oriented” and ultimately functions as a crutch on which faces, bodies, and world rest. It is sorely missing the philosophical rigor, fractal-like repetition, and unrelenting search for a reality beyond (or hidden within) our own that is to be found in his later films. In many ways, the meaning of the voice over is located in the rough hewed, pre-Modern nature of Linda Manz’s voice—qualities Malick looks for in voices as well as faces.

Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven are without a doubt treasures of a bygone era, but they are also experiments by a promising philosopher and gifted writer who was newly baptized into cinema by an improvised American Film Institute curriculum, and gambled on by principalities of power desperately trying to latch onto the princes of the new American cinema movement hoping to crown a new king. After two films Malick left Hollywood a visionary director, but twenty years later he returned a film philosopher (incidentally, just as film studies began its philosophical turn led by D. N. Rodowick’s Deleuzian film-philosophy work). He returned with The Thin Red Line.

We might, then, compare the voice over in Days of Heaven to the philosophical framing device and subsequent exploration-like commentary found in The Thin Red Line. The film’s opening and closing lines reveal its preoccupation:

“What’s this war at the heart of nature. Why does nature vie with itself—the land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two? / Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

Set to the backdrop of the Japanese and American battle for the remote Pacific island of Guadalcanal during World War Two, Malick uses James Jones’ source novel as a chassis on which to build an investigation—not a ‘story’ per se—of the soul’s search for the ineffable amidst the struggle and decay at the heart of human existence. Rather than one naïve (and unreliable) narrator as in Badlands and Days of Heaven there are eight different voices in The Thin Red Line. The voiceover is subjective but not necessarily testimonial; it is rational but not analytical. This is a writing strategy that Malick will continue to develop over the course of his next films—the soul’s common cry to a cosmic Other amidst the struggle of being a human being.

If there is one character’s journey we are meant to follow throughout The Thin Red Line, it is the questions, life, and death of Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel). It is through Pvt. Witt’s search for calm in the face of death that we begin to make sense of the true nature of the struggle happening on the island. After the ominous prologue set to the sound of Francesco Lupica’s cosmic beam, the film begins with images of the peaceful and harmonious native life lived on the island and Pvt. Witt living and playing amongst the inhabitants. Life in the native village anticipates the harmony of the “Naturals” in The New World (2005).

We quickly find out that Pvt. Witt is in search of something; he shares a story about the death of his mother and how it frightened him because of his lack of vision, his inability to see immortality. This is our cue to the central concern in The Thin Red Line. Trying to understand the brutal struggle we find in the heart of nature (decay, violence, love) is a gateway for a secondary quest—learning to embrace the threshold of the visible and invisible, the unconcealed and concealed, the material and immaterial.

Much has been written and speculated about the philosophical sources of Malick’s The Thin Red Line. The problem however is that such speculation would fall into one of the two traps that have developed when one writes about Terrence Malick: the sources of his words or the beauty of his images. These readings are then projected back into Badlands and Days of Heaven to show a continuum of an auteur and subsequently used as a method to proudly consume his films like aesthetic gourmet cuisine. Lest we become too comfortable in the illusory satisfactions of epistemological security, however, let’s consider another name.


The Thin Red Line is a film rich in Plotinus, Spinoza, and Heidegger as much as it is Russian director Alexander Sokurov. Admittedly, I should disclose that I came to this realization during my own 18 months of service on The Tree of Life (2011). Production and post-production on the film was a very intimate, family-like setting, and I learned to enjoy and love Malick for the man I knew, not for what he’s done or what he does. One day, after a discussion about the virtues and challenges of ‘Russian’ editing (specifically Tarkovsky and Sokurov), Malick lent me two Maxell VHS tapes with Sokurov’s Spiritual Voices (1994). I never talked to him about the connections I saw between Spiritual Voices and The Thin Red Line because it was more natural at the time to talk about our shared admiration (and challenges) of the art itself. But the connections are there for those who have the eyes to see and it should be considered an essential companion piece to The Thin Red Line.

In 1994 Sokurov accompanied a unit of Russian troops to the Afghani-Tadjik border to chronicle their experiences of futility, the threat of an unseen foe, and a barren natural realm disinterested in their plight.

Indeed, Sokurov’s five and half hour film (technically classified as a documentary) has an immediacy and insistence on duration that benefits from being shot on Betacam. The two films share a lingering obsession with faces, hands, feet shifting in the dirt, and world. Both films use the subject of war to explore the nature of existence on the threshold of life and death. Both films—as Sokurov’s title suggests—seek another reality in and through the natural realm. Like standing before Eastern Orthodox icons and the iconostasis—that line in an Eastern Orthodox church that separates and unites the holy altar (the eternal) from the rest of the church (the temporal)—vision is transformed (re-oriented) from ordinary matter towards a realm beyond the senses and quickly returns.

Part 1 of Spiritual Voices is a 50-minute single shot of the contested Afghani-Tadjik borderland slowly transforming from day to night. The camera is static. There is both an insistence on surface and depth. It peers out onto the invisible line, straining, longing to see the beyond as a voice over talks about the music of Mozart.

I wish I had realized then that the shared affection Malick and I shared for Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s short treaties on the music of Mozart was directly connected to what Sokurov was trying capture in the film’s opening sequence. There’s a dialectic in Mozart’s music, writes Barth, “heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, … the Virgin Mary and the demons … [where] light rises and the shadows fall.”2 The glory of Mozart’s music is in his exploration of both the far immortal country and in the nothingness, darkness, and discord of human existence.

In The Thin Red Line we are urged to journey along this thin line, this way (this Tao)—between being and non-being—to learn to see the world anew. Unlike Days of Heaven, which gloriously yet desperately seeks for meaning beyond its own artifice, The Thin Red Line is a film that takes as its own subject matter the line between artifice and transcendence. Without a sense of urgency, Malick bids us to linger on images of light and detritus.

Trees rise, twist, and contort as though both glory and brokenness is written in the DNA of nature. The hills are filled with energy and death, and by the end of the film we realize that the jungle is a place of both magical beauty and destruction as nature literally comes alive to devour Charlie Company.

It’s in the midst of this search in time and space where something tries to breakthrough the frame—moments of the glory found in and through duration. Pvt. Witt finally approaches the threshold as the jungle encircles him. The sequence is perhaps the most stirring in Malick’s oeuvre. There are no tears and no messages. The camera lingers on Witt’s face as he stares out into the deep beyond. A crash of wave absorbs the sound of the gunshot, a beam of light breaks the darkness, and just as suddenly Witt is back in paradise swimming. The images of childlike joy and weightlessness are accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s score faintly echoing the sounds of the Melanesian choir calling him home.

The end of Witt’s journey is worth noting, as it holds a seed of Malick’s future intentions. As Witt swims free in paradise, an undefined past or future, the frame rate suddenly slows down—which heightens the scene’s uncanny mood. The sound of a wave crash and a very uncharacteristic magazine roll out and flash frame end Witt’s journey. We are left with one last glimpse of children swimming and another flash frame quickly returns us to the jungle. Much like the final frames of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), where it appears the celluloid is literally rent from the sprockets, it is as if Malick suggests that the celluloid is not capable of containing the sublime beauty of Witt’s crossing.

This is a decidedly different turn from Malick’s first two films, where insistence was on the materiality and texture of his sensory landscapes. The original tagline for Days of Heaven was: “Your eyes … your ears … your senses will be overwhelmed.” In The Thin Red Line and after, there is far more Tao; the film as an artifact is an empty vessel and we are summoned to and through it. Far more than their lush materiality, the insistence is on the being and non-being of the film. Only by becoming attuned to this threshold ourselves, will we be able to reach out and touch the glory.

This line, or more accurately our movement towards it and retreat from it, lies at the heart of Malick’s three historical epics. In Part 2, we will see that Malick’s films take a monumental leap forward as he begins a fruitful working partnership with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski. Over the course of their next two films—The New World and The Tree of Life—Malick will explore the idea that to sojourn cinematically requires both a dogma rigid enough and a non-linear editing system flexible enough to free the celluloid from its own pictorial and industrial limits.

1. Lao Tzu’s Tao-Teh-Ching: A Parallel Translation Collection, comp. B. Boisen (GNOMAD Publishing: Boston, MA, 1996), 1.

2. Barth, Karl, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003) 34, 55.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Terrence MalickLong Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.