The Man Who Wasn’t There

When Austinite Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” opens in theaters this month, Hollywood’s most famous disappearing act will come to an end. Or will it?

Boy,” Maggio said as they watched him go. “That guy kin really play a bugle. Whynt he never play? He should ought to be in the Bugle Corps.”

He was, you jerk,” Andy said scornfully. “He quit. He wouldn’t play in this old Corps.”

—From Here to Eternity, by James Jones

WHEN I MET TERRENCE MALICK, he was in Los Angeles, editing his new movie, The Thin Red Line,  which opens on Christmas Day. The project marks his return to directing after a twenty-year break spent mostly in Austin, his hometown. Unfortunately, when we arranged the meeting, Malick had asked me not to write about it, which places me in a bind. Let me say this much: We had a drink on the patio of a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Red hibiscus trailed down the walls, and its flamboyant beauty mirrored the general feel of the place. The people around us were stunning, and the European cars outside were expensive. I had picked the location. Malick seemed at ease, but his humility told me that this was not his true setting.

I’d read a lot about Malick in the preceding weeks, and almost every story had depicted him as an unfathomable recluse. He’s often compared to writer J. D. Salinger, another genius who won’t share himself with the public. My homework had given me the sense of a ghostly eminence, so it was startling to encounter Malick as a corporeal being. He has a bearish figure, a cropped white beard, a bald dome, and a vertical, Spanish-looking nose. My general impression was that he is the most reserved warm person, or the warmest reserved person, that I can recall ever meeting. The recluse label fits him poorly, as everyone who gets to know Malick finds him gregarious. Still, he remains steadfastly oblique: Even old friends say he rarely asks for personal advice, rarely divulges his deepest feelings. This does not stop them from feeling close to him. “Terry is thoughtful,” says someone who has known him for decades but asks not to be quoted by name for fear of causing a rift with Malick. “He has a seriousness about him that does not suppress his humor but is always there. I think it comes from his appreciation for how philosophical life is, and how tragic. How deeply tragic. That’s what is so endearing about him: He reacts to you with that level of concern.” His charismatic personality inspires an unusual loyalty, demonstrated by the lengths to which friends have gone to further his career and to maintain his privacy when he decided to abandon moviemaking.

With his friends, Malick typically talks about books, birds, and travel. These are the interests of someone engaged with the empirical world, not someone engrossed in Hollywood, a realm dedicated to illusion. Still, he must have a steely side, because Hollywood isn’t the kind of place where an intellectual drifter can accomplish much. In time, I came to appreciate the degree to which Malick needs to feel in control. It explains his struggle with procrastination: As long as he hasn’t made up his mind, he can hold on to all of his options. The closest he came to an answer regarding an on-the-record interview, for example, was several weeks after our meeting, when he called me from his car. “I’m still very shy about this sort of thing, from a wish to lead as normal and simple a life as possible,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you to be under any impression that I’ll change about this. But I’ll continue to think about it.”

I had wanted to meet Malick to learn why he had returned to film, but as it turned out, the answer did not present itself that evening. Eventually I decided that the key to his intermittent moviemaking can be found in the work of the novelist he’s chosen to interpret. The Thin Red Line is based on James Jones’s book about a company of young men who take Guadalcanal. It’s a sequel of sorts to his first novel, From Here to Eternity, whose protagonist is a soldier named Robert E. Lee Prewitt. Proving his stubborn autonomy, Prewitt will not bugle, although he is one of the Army’s greatest buglers. It’s a story of character and institution converging: Jones uses Prewitt to reveal truths about the Army and vice versa.

Like Prewitt, Malick has baffled admirers by refusing to practice an art in which he is preeminent. For anyone trying to puzzle out what motivates him—what led him to Hollywood in the first place, what caused him to quit the movie business, and what has now brought him back—it helps to recall that he arrived at a time when filmmakers possessed an unparalleled measure of freedom. Legend has it that he walked away from it all, but in reality, by the time he vanished, the freedom he had enjoyed was fast disappearing.

The path back to L.A. was a crooked one. Given the degree to which he prefers to abstain, Malick might never have made another movie but for the persistence of two obscure Broadway producers who courted him for a decade. When it became clear he was going to direct again, every male lead in Hollywood scrambled to get a part, drawn by the idea of working with an icon of the seventies film scene. “I told Terry I would carry the hammer box if he wanted me to,” George Clooney told a reporter. Malick cast Clooney, Sean Penn, John Cusack, John Travolta, and Woody Harrelson, among others. This princely lineup of celebrities, combined with Malick’s return, would have been enough to guarantee press attention, but then Steven Spielberg complicated matters by entrancing critics with Saving Private Ryan, which led the media to conclude that this was the year to make a war movie. And so Hollywood’s most retiring director is about to endure a particularly splashy comeback. It’s not how he would have planned it.

On the set it seems like the sky’s the limit.

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