6.The New World, Malick’s 2005 Jamestown epic, pits Indians who coexist with nature against British settlers who seek to tame it. Ostensibly a romance, it shows signs of that same nonnarrative approach—major plot points pass barely noticed as the camera lingers on rivers and woods and the angelic Pocahontas, played by Q’orianka Kilcher. The response was sharply divided, but those who love it really, really love it. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote, “Where other movies have fans, Malick’s produce disciples.”
7. Malick is famously private about both his life and his artistic process, so we can only guess at when he decided to return to Q in earnest. Producer Sarah Green reportedly got a revised treatment during preproduction on The New World. By July 2007, there was a script. The Tree of Life would marry the cosmic and natural journey of Q with a semi-autobiographical story centered around a Texas family not unlike the director’s own, seen through the eyes of the oldest child (played by Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult). Judging by one draft of the script, the director seems to have finally found the human connection he’d been circling around all those years ago: The flashback to the beginnings of time would be prompted by the existential crisis of a man who finds himself at odds with the world around him. Is Penn’s Jack a stand-in for Malick the wanderer? “It’s impossible for me to guess what is in Terry’s mind, but it is natural, as we get older, to think more of what came before and what may lie beyond,” says Fisk.
8. Shooting and editing in a style that highlights the fleeting nature of memory and avoids most narrative conventions, Malick now appears to have realized the lyric poem of creation he envisioned for Q, largely without compromises. (It’s even rumored that some of the old footage was brought out of storage and used in the film.) “He’s been moving toward this his whole career,” says Billy Weber, who worked as an editor on Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life. “I think he really decided to go for something radical this time. This is his most experimental film.” And not his last: Another film, starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, is already in postproduction, scheduled for a 2012 release.