Debate of The Day: Is Terrence Malick Brilliant or Pretentious?


Before watching Terrence Malick’s films, I knew that there was always a divisive opinion about his films. Some people argue that his vivid use of imagery evokes a spiritual experience that you rarely feel watching films. Others claim that it is a mess that conveys nothing but pretentiousness.  I know that mixed reviews are pretty common with movies, but reception to Malick’s films are extremely polarizing to the point that I myself am confused.

To be honest, I saw Malick’s films and it could not sustain my attention at all. I tried to sit through the Tree of Life. Roger Ebert called the film one of the best movies of all time, while audiences booed and walked out during one screening. I gave him a second chance with the recent film To The Wonder. I still couldn’t love it. It makes me question if it was really bad or I just didn’t understand the concept of it.

Where do you stand when it comes to his films?


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  1. A bit of both. Not sure if pretentious is the best word, but more like repetition. I enjoyed The Thin Red Line. I somewhat enjoyed The New World but grew weary of the style. The Tree of Life I couldn’t sit through. It just took the same style in a different subject. Wes Anderson has dangerously come close to that but I like his style more. I think Malick is very talented in presenting a visually beautiful film, but he can’t present a plot at all and at this point pretentious is the least of his criticisms.

  2. “Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.”

    This does not describe Terrence Malick. Regardless of his success rate (for me, everything except Thin Red Line has been an outrageous home run; TRL is “merely” very good), I have a hard time believing that he does anything to impress people. The questions he poses in his films are real, they matter, and they don’t seem to come from anywhere other than a place of genuine concern or curiosity.

    “Pretentious” is a word ill-applied to people like Terrence Malick (or Ingmar Bergman, or David Foster Wallace, or anyone else like that). I would rather reserve it for, as an example, Man of Steel. THAT’s a movie that “pretends” to have greater importance and meaning (“Eventually they will join you in the sun”) than it actually does.

    Movies that put on the mask of self-seriousness and literary awareness, without actually committing to the exploration of themes, thoughts, or even simply trying to leave the audience better than they found them, are pretentious. If Tree of Life, et al falls short of its goals (I think it achieves them), it at least does so honestly. It’s not in any way “pretending.”

  3. David’s spot on in terms of Malick’s (lack of) pretension. I for one love The Tree of Life like whoa. It made me feel what it was like to be a kid again, not understanding the deeper meaning of things but still registering their beauty.

    I was not a fan of The Thin Red Line though, so make of that whatever you will. When George Clooney showed up I actually laughed out loud. One does not simply insert Clooney 2/3 of the way into a heavy philosophical movie purporting to examine the horrors of war.

  4. I’d like to direct you to this discussion I saw on Reddit a couple of days ago.\

    The use of the word ‘pretentious’ is pretty tricky, and I think you use it incorrectly in your post.

    ”Let me just say that calling a film pretentious is not a valid form of criticism. It does not say nearly as much as you think it does. I feel that people often find this word to be interchangeable with “ambitious”. It’s okay to say that the ambitious nature of a film failed to reach you as a viewer. I understand that completely. However, that alone does not make a film bad or even flawed. When you call a film and its filmmaker pretentious, what are you really saying? Pretentious is a word that applies to bad filmmaking as much as it does to good filmmaking. ”

  5. I’m not calling the film pretentious at all. As I’ve said, I’m confused about how I feel about Terrence Malick. I am merely using a word I’ve heard viewers call his film from word of mouth or online.

    This is a debate post so I’m not claiming the film to be anything.

  6. @Benny-

    To me, at least, your intent was clear.

    With regard to the way one processes Malick’s work, I tend to watch it in the same state of mind that I listen to music or watch a movie like Disney’s Fantasia. It’s not the kind of art film that necessarily needs to be analyzed (like, oh, Shane Carruth’s stuff), it’s more the kind that’s meant to be felt. Like Disney did with Fantasia, Malick tries to visualize things that are sorta inherently abstract concepts. Watch his movies like you would walk in the woods.

    Also you might want to give Badlands or Days of Heaven a shot. Earlier movies, and shorter ones. Badlands I haven’t actually seen but have heard is fantastic; Days of Heaven is flat-out gorgeous. Actually that’s another thing I like about Malick: He’s one of the few filmmakers who regularly seeks out and tries to capture — just go with my word choice here — the rapturous beauty of the world around us.

  7. I’ve only seen Badlands so I don’t have all that much to say in this matter, but I can honestly say that that movie is one of the most beautiful and genuine movies I’ve ever seen. The flow of the movie, the layered characters and their often times vague motifs makes the movie something beyond what I’ve seen before or since. I really can’t put my finger on it but a guess “genuine” and “human” is gonna have to do for now

  8. The tree of life is the first movie Iv’e ever walked out on. I left during the volcano scene. Its garbage. To me it’s like the emperor’s new clothes where people on the internet say it is good, so people think they have to say it is good. I had a better time in the movie theatre lobby watching real life.

  9. Trust me, even if you understood the underlying theme, it’s all a bunch of crap. I would explain it to you, but I don’t want to waste my time. You probably did understand the movie and are just smart enough to realize that all the pretentiousness was completely unnecessary.

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