Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 24, 2020)
From 1973 to 2005, Terrence Malick directed four feature films. From 2011 to 2019, he made five, along with a documentary and a few shorts.
Now in his mid-70s, it seems unlikely Malick will keep us this pace from 2020 to 2029, but who knows? Clint Eastwood still cranks out movies as he approaches 90, so maybe Malick’s late-life resurgence will continue.
2019’s A Hidden Life finishes Malick’s 2010s with a period piece based on a true story. Via the 1938 “Anschluss”, Germany annexes Austria, and with war on the horizon in 1939, Hitler demands that all Austrian soldiers swear loyalty to him.
Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) lives a simple life with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and others but this changes in 1940 when he gets called into military duty. Franz views Hitler as a catastrophe and protests as a conscientious objector.
That doesn’t go over easily under the Nazi regime, so Franz experiences massive blowback. He tries to remain true to his beliefs while he also keeps his family safe.
Although I feel tempted to refer to Malick as a “polarizing” director, I don’t know if he qualifies, if just because he reaches such a small audience. Of Malick’s nine features, 1998’s Thin Red Line took in the most money, as it made $98 million worldwide.
However, with a $52 million budget, Line failed to turn a profit, and the same situation confronted every other Malick movie. Life earned less than $5 million, another Malick flick that failed to find an audience beyond devoted cinephiles.
As such, I do find it tough to label Malick as “polarizing”, as few other than devoted fans actually see his movies. Outside of critics like me, I can’t imagine many not already enchanted with Malick’s style view his flicks.
Will the Malick aficionados like Life? Probably, as it plays out like pretty much every other Malick movie.
Which comes as a major weakness to me, as this subject matter doesn’t suit Malick’s airy, dreamy tendencies at all. At its heart, Life provides a tale of bravery in the face of danger, but Malick’s stubbon refusal to pursue a tone that conveys terror or intensity robs the story of its potential.
As usual, Malick populates Life< with seemingly unending shots of people in nature and interacting with the earth. Does he attempt to develop the characters in any way beyond these images?
Nope. Malick never cared much about characters or plot, so we don’t get a real sense of our leads beyond “they love each other”.
Franz embarks on a doomed crusade to support his own principles, but Malick does little to convey the depths of his belief or even his sacrifices. Life doesn’t make Nazi prison camp look like Hogan’s Heroes, but he also fails to convey a sense of much deprivation or fear.
Face it: Malick can’t get away from his love of idyllic visuals, and those don’t suit a story of courage in wartime at all. Where Malick should go dark and foreboding, he sticks with his core choices of lush fields.
Everything looks tranquil and peaceful. Why does Malick think these images make sense for a story like this?
I don’t know, but these decisions rob Life of any and all drama, as does Malick’s choice to extend the movie to nearly three hours. As depicted here, we get maybe 90 minutes of actual character/story material, and that might offer an overestimate.
While I don’t find myself a fan of Malick’s preference for movies that de-emphasize the narrative side of things, that approach can work given the right story and the right running time. An emotional drama like Life doesn’t succeed when stretched to 174 minutes and focused on lush visuals.
Not that I’m sure Life would fare much better at 90 minutes, mostly because that might cause Malick to cut out character/story elements even more. It might be incorrect to think a shorter Life would concentrate better on those components, as it might instead just bring 90 minutes of farm imagery.
None of this seems likely to steer Malick fans from their chosen path, as they’ll continue to fawn over his admittedly excellent sense of visuals. However, he veers more and more toward self-parody with films like this, and his refusal or inability to tell an actual story becomes a major drawback.