Movie Review: 'A Hidden Life' Is Malick At His Finest
There are some reviews you dread writing. The bad movies, those are easy. It’s usually the totally average ones, where you have to come up with something interesting to say about a movie that’s completely unremarkable. But on very rare occasions, a movie touches you in such a deeply personal way it feels almost blasphemous to try to verbalize your experience.
A Hidden Life is the latest from director Terrence Malick, and it’s one of a number of his films that have put me in this position. It’s the true story of an Austrian farmer in World War II who refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler and was eventually executed. He knew what would happen, and he knew what he was doing wasn’t going to change anything — he just knew, in his soul, he couldn’t do what was wrong.
The story is powerful, but it’s the way Malick tells it that’s so significant. His swirling camera and unusual lenses, his meditative pace, and the absurdly gorgeous score from James Newton Howard make it all feel almost dreamlike. But Malick doesn’t try to transport us to another world, he bathes in the glory of this one, in the transcendent ecstatic experience of life. He’s overtly spiritual, even religious, though never evangelistic. He’s able to convey our connection to something greater than ourselves, whatever that might be. Regardless of your belief system, you know this feeling—maybe it’s from the soft wind in a wheat field, or the incomprehensibly vast stillness of the night sky, or the majesty of your child’s hand.
Malick is one of history’s great artists, and that this seems hyperbolic shows both that we have trouble ascribing such greatness to our contemporaries and that many people still struggle to see movies as true art. When he’s at his best, his films are so emotionally overwhelming it’s almost too much to bear. But his movies need you to be vulnerable, to come to them with an open heart, to drop any cynicism and to consent to being elevated. Your mind may wander during a Malick film, but this is a feature, not a bug. He allows you space to move, to reflect, and to return when you’re ready. And we must — the questions he tackles are so big, looking at our small place in this universe, there’s much to reflect on.
This one man in A Hidden Life, this farmer, knew he wasn’t making a difference. Except that he was. As the George Eliot quote that gives the movie its name indicates, the small, hidden lives of the people who make these decisions are what move us toward a growing good in the world, they’re what continue to reverberate through time. He knew no one could see what he was doing. Except we do. We see. All around us, we see.