In August 1973, a quiet young courier took a print of Terrence Malick's debut feature Badlands from Los Angeles to Manhattan for submission to the New York Film Festival. After the screening, festival chief Richard Roud said to the messenger, "Would you please tell Mr. Malick that we loved Badlands and want it as our closing-night film?" The unassuming fellow replied, "I'm Mr. Malick."
After that, he was harder to find. In his fulfilling but furtive 38 years since Badlands, Malick has spawned just four more features: Days of Heaven in 1978, The Thin Red Line in 1998, The New World in 2005 and The Tree of Life, the highlight of this year's Cannes Film Festival. The legendarily shy auteur skipped his new movie's press conference, leaving his star Brad Pitt to explain things, and materialized at the end of Tree's black-tie screening after insisting that paparazzi be banned. (A recent shot of Malick is as elusive as Osama bin Laden's death photo.) When jury president Robert De Niro announced that the top-prize Palme d'Or had gone to Malick's film, the director was again AWOL, leaving two of his producers, Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardner, to accept in his stead.
Some who saw The Tree of Life think it's as maddeningly Delphic as its maker. At heart a portrait of a 1950s suburban-Texas family, the O'Briens father (Pitt, above), mother (Jessica Chastain) and their sons Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) the film scoots backward a dozen years, forward to the '60s, when the mother learns one of her boys has died, and into the present (with Jack now played by Sean Penn) and the celestial future. Near the beginning, Malick breaks all narrative rules by offering a wordless history of the cosmos, from the Big Bang through the emergence of plant and sea life and finally dinosaurs. Those viewers who don't go, "Wow!" may say, "Huh?" or "Phooey."
The man who provokes such apposite reactions has an imposingly wayward résumé. The son of an oil geologist, Terry grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, working summers in oil fields and as a farmhand. Settling in Austin for high school, he then studied philosophy at Harvard and as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. By his mid-20s he was teaching philosophy at MIT and had translated a treatise by German existentialist Martin Heidegger, while writing for LIFE, Newsweek and the New Yorker.
But what he really wanted to do was direct. Joining the American Film Institute's director workshop in 1969, he made the 17-minute anarcho-comedy Lanton Mills, in which he and Harry Dean Stanton played western hombres. With help from AFI contacts and his first wife, Jill Jakes, who worked for director Arthur Penn, he got jobs writing or doctoring scripts (including an unused draft for Dirty Harry), then made Badlands, which dreamily reimagines the '50s murder spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate.
Badlands took just a year from first day of filming to final cut. Thereafter, Malick would spend ages in the editing room (two years for Days of Heaven; three for The Tree of Life), whittling movie prose into visual poetry. In 1978 he moved to Paris, and he did not release another film for 20 years. Legends grew around his silence: Was he living in a garage? Teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne? He married a French woman and, by the mid-'90s, had re-entered the film world with The Thin Red Line, his free-form adaptation of the James Jones novel. He now lives in Austin, an hour's drive from the Smithville, Texas, location of The Tree of Life, with his third wife, Alexandra "Ecky" Wallace.
The Tree of Life is both his most personal film (Malick had brothers, one of whom died young) and his most overtly philosophical, with God and Nature lurking in every branch. Pitt, who dominates Tree with a sensitive reading of a most insensitive man, says the piece is "not a Christian so much as a spiritual film."