THE LISTS: Top 10 performances in Terrence Malick films

Posted by · 9:40 am · May 24th, 2011

If you can believe it, it’s been since Halloween that we kicked the dust off this feature at In Contention. We made it all the way through the Oscar season without feeling compelled to go there. Odd. So, with Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” opening in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, before expanding to other cities throughout June, it seemed a good time to dig back in and cook up a collective that might drive a little more interest in the discussion.

The easiest thing I could think of was a list of the best performances from Malick films, and as I sat down to revisit all five of the director’s works last week, it became clear it was as good a choice as any. There is, after all, plenty to choose from.

Malick films contain a wide-ranging array of performances, all of them proving to be singular feathers in the caps of many actors. Indeed, when an actor stars in a Malick film, he or she is met with direction unique to any other experience, and it can yield great, unexpected work. Naturalism and a sense of authenticity are hallmarks of these portrayals, as Malick likes to scrape away the dishonesty of “performance” and get to something truer, with all the imperfection that comes with it.

For my money, the following 10 represent the best of the lot. Let’s dive in…

10. Elias Koteas, “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
It ended up being a toss-up between three graduates of Malick’s third film, “The Thin Red Line,” for the bottom slot on the list. But while Dash Mihok gave a unique but natural portrayal, and while Jim Caviezel proved a zen narrative and emotional anchor, I settled on Elias Koteas’s Capt. James “Bugger” Staros. And a fitting pick it might be, seeing as his work encapsulates so perfectly a current that runs through many Malick characters, namely a profound sense of inner conflict. Koteas carved out a supporting character of great honor but undeniable frailty (as in, humanity), a man who’ll bite his lip until it bleeds.

9. Sissy Spacek, “Badlands” (1973)
Malick began experimenting with narration from the beginning, juxtaposing the lofty romantic thoughts of 15-year-old Holly Sargis with the grisly visual fallout of her life on the run with a sociopath as empty as she is in Malick’s first film, “Badlands.” Holly was surely a challenging persona to translate to the screen, and Sissy Spacek, in just her second fleshed-out role on screen, with that soft, unassuming Texas accent, took to it like a duck to water. In some ways, her detached amorality makes for a character as unsettling as co-star Martin Sheen’s cold-blooded ne’er-do-well.

8. Colin Farrell, “The New World” (2005)
Colin Farrell gives one of the great quiet performances in Malick’s fourth film, “The New World.” There’s plenty of dialogue, but what I take away from Malick films are the moments when he forces you to observe behavior. And there is something transcendent about how Farrell took to that direction, particularly when the Native Americans of what will be Virginia take his Captain John Smith in for an exchange of cultures. He also navigates the emotional terrain of the film’s love story with authentic flare where melodrama could have crept into his sense of motivation. It’s a wholly complete performance, one of his best.

7. Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life” (2011)
Malick’s latest film, “The Tree of Life,” owes much of its existence to actor Brad Pitt, who co-produced the project with his Plan B partner Dede Gardner. Pitt should be commended for that bravery behind the camera, but in front of the camera, he is no less committed, digging into stern patriarch Mr. O’Brien with passion and conviction. The character is meant to be symbolic, representative of a way of life — “nature” and “fierce will” — but the actor pumps a considerable amount of real emotion into it, running hot and cold throughout, ultimately offering some of his finest work to date.

6. Nick Nolte, “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
Nick Nolte fully owned the role of Lt. Col. Gordon Tall in 1998’s “The Thin Red Line.” Digging under the skin of a soldier-for-life type desperate to finally have “his war,” the actor mined fascinatingly contradictory rhythms throughout, offering the best of the film’s three showcased performances (the other two coming from Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel). But outside of a Chicago Film Critics Association nod for Best Supporting Actor, the awards season passed him up entirely. He spits fire one minute and calmly waxes philosophic the next, putting out perhaps the most complex character of the piece.

5. Q’orianka Kilcher, “The New World” (2005)
Seven years after his big return to cinema, Malick tried to keep a stride of some sort going with the Pocahontas story in “The New World.” And in the pivotal role, Malick cast Q’orianka Kilcher, an unknown — aside from being singer/songwriter Jewel Kilcher’s cousin — and a happy surprise. In the extended cut of the film, much of the material, including the character, has more room to breathe. So I consider that when sizing up Kilcher’s lived-in portrayal of a complex woman confronted with love, duty and ultimately, the real “new world” of the film’s title: civilization.

4. Woody Harrelson, “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
I surprised myself when ordering this list to find that what I felt to be the best performance in my favorite Malick film is the one that amounts on screen to little more than a cameo. But that’s also kind of the nature of “The Thin Red Line,” a film edited mercilessly into a potent mixture and a perfect storm of imagery and performance. Woody Harrelson gets precious few moments to shine as Sgt. Keck, but in a random, tragic instance (I won’t bother spoiling it in case some have not see this 13 year-old film), he exudes the most believable, passionate horror, shame and epiphany of anyone in the cast.

3. Linda Manz, “Days of Heaven” (1978)
Richard Gere’s hothead worker and Sam Shepard’s shy farmer were both close to making the list from 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” but when it comes to Malick’s second feature film, I’m always reminded of Linda Manz. The events of the film are told from her perspective, one of innocence, and Manz, 16-years-old when the film was made, gives a strikingly assured performance. Much of its power comes from the character’s matter-of-fact, sometimes misspoken narration throughout, capturing the hard realities of adulthood through the lens of unconditioned youth, playing on a typical Malick theme: contradiction.

2. Martin Sheen, “Badlands” (1973)
In Malick’s debut feature, Martin Sheen really burst onto the scene in a star-making performance as alluring as it was dangerous. The actor has said he was greatly inspired by James Dean early in life, and in “Badlands,” he was able to tap the kind of charisma that made Dean an icon and bend it around the intriguing character of Kit Carruthers. Sheen exuded all the elements necessary to make it a portrayal organic to Malick’s vision: boredom, delusion, obsession, passion, kindness, coldness, etc. It was a seemingly irreconcilable blend, a tightrope Sheen walked to perfection.

1. Hunter McCracken, “The Tree of Life” (2011)
For “The Tree of Life,” Malick sought out non-actors for most of the characters and gave very little direction (as is his way). In his view, the worst thing you can do is cast someone who is naturally perfect for a particular role and then tell him or her to be someone else. In Hunter McCracken, Malick got a treasure trove of genuine actions and reactions, and I’ll be honest, I surprised myself when I settled on him for the top spot. The young actor was tasked with taking his character, Jack O’Brien, through the awkward years of preadolescence, struggling with a contradictory world (external and internal), balancing aggression and compassion along the way. And, quite frankly, he’s perfect in the role. Pitch perfect.

What are your favorite performances from Terrence Malick films? Sound off in the comments section below!

[Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures]

→ 64 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

64 responses so far

  • 1 5-25-2011 at 6:06 am

    Heather said...

    Even though Spacek might have been simply “being” rather than necessarily acting (I think even she said she was too new to the biz to know exactly what she was doing), it was such a unique, startling piece of work that I’d give her the prize. And as with Carrie, she was portraying a significantly younger character than her actual age which could present a challenge.

    Fascinating that she was able to parlay a series of decidedly odd, on the edge of society type characters (her most famous 70s roles were in Badlands, Carrie & 3 Women) into critical acclaim, box office clout, and 2 leading oscar nominations and an oscar by 1980.

  • 2 5-25-2011 at 9:15 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    I guess if I have any quibbles about this list, I would have placed Nick Nolte WAY higher (thrilled to see that I’m not alone on that, based on the comments), but I like the rest. Very excited to see Hunter McCracken – who looks unsettlingly similar to Sean Penn, doesn’t he? – in The Tree of Life.

  • 3 5-25-2011 at 11:34 am

    Speaking English said...


    Malick. It’s Malick. It’s only the title of the damn post.

  • 4 5-25-2011 at 6:47 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yes, at least grant Malick the courtesy of not repeatedly misspelling his name as you take him apart!

    (He’s of Assyrian blood, which presumably means his family name was Malik a few generations back, but it’s been anglicised since.)

    Good list, though I’m obviously not as taken with McCracken as Kris. (I see now I didn’t even mention him in my review, though he does strong work.) Martin Sheen would take my top spot. Come to think of it, Sissy Spacek would probably be runner-up.

  • 5 5-27-2011 at 11:36 am

    ryan said...

    You have no idea how thrilled I am that Woody Harrelson showed up on the list. He was barely in it, sure… But his scene is incredible.

    Also glad that Elias Koteas wasn’t forgotten… Casey Jones forever!

  • 6 5-27-2011 at 11:38 am

    ryan said...

    Also, Nick Nolte got passed over for a lot of awards, because he was already getting attention for Affliction, which I’m sure someone has already mentioned, but I didn’t read everyone’s comments, haha.

  • 7 5-30-2011 at 12:26 pm

    ryy said...

    Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas & Nick Nolte from – The Thin Red Line.
    If I had to choose one it would be Ben Chaplin, I’m surprised no one else mentioned him.

  • 8 5-30-2011 at 5:35 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Having just re-watched ‘The Thin Red Line’ for the first time in years, Ben Chaplin most definitely stood out.

  • 9 5-30-2011 at 6:13 pm

    DylanS said...

    Having just watched “The New World” in full for the first time, i have to agree with Kris about Farrell and Kilcher, both excellent, rich and layered performences. I would also myself shout out one of my favorite Actors, Christian Bale.

    The film needed a leading man prescence after Farrell is dropped from the narrative, and Bale is able to provide that even though his character doesn’t appear at all in the movie before then. I was impressed by that ability to just slip right into the shape of the narrative like that. He really saves the movie in my opinion.

  • 10 5-31-2011 at 10:03 am

    Yonatan said...

    Tony (36, what the hell happened to Jim Caviezel?)-
    Mel Gibson killed Caviezel.
    And, he won’t do nude scenes, and he’s starring in a new TV series called “Person of Interest”.

  • 11 5-31-2011 at 10:44 am

    Shawn said...

    Haven’t seen Tree of Life, but among the others Nolte to the top of the list, followed by Kilcher.

    I would bump Harrelson in favor of Caviezel.

    Nolte’s Colonel Tall is so angry you almost wonder if it’s over the top. In the end it isn’t. He could have been a much stupider character. If he’s stupid at all, he’s profoundly stupid, or, better, sublimely stupid. On the surface he has an aggressive intelligence. Speaking as a man who’s perhaps too fond of philosophical disputation, I was sympathetic to the way he argued–rather to my chagrin.

    Also there was some horrible irony in some of his lines, and in his pleas for empathy. Nolte really managed to deliver those lines convincingly.

  • 12 9-02-2011 at 8:06 am

    Dominik said...

    I loved the John Travolta’s dancing on the deck.

  • 13 9-02-2011 at 8:22 am

    Christoph said...

    As far as the supporting performances in The Thin Red Line go, I thought Cusack was the best – relatively, I’d say he’s best in the entire film though Caviezel, Koteas and Nolte had more screentime and ultimately had more to do, which led to better overall performances. Ben Chaplin and Sean Penn were also good.

  • 14 8-23-2012 at 3:37 pm

    bets77 said...

    How can Jessica Chastian not be here? She was angelic in Tree of Life.