The first half of Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life stacks up with some of the best work the legendary filmmaker has ever done—right up there with Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life. The second half, though, feels a lot more like... uh, what's the term for Malick's more recent movies, like Knight of Cups, and that one about music, and that one with Ben Affleck? Nü-Malick? Let's go with nü-Malick.
Nü-Malick movies aren't bad—even at their worst, they're generally better than many arthouse efforts, and there's never a shortage of the director's striking soundscapes and achingly beautiful visuals—but compared to Malick's best stuff, they rarely compare. (To be fair: Not many movies can.) Which is what makes A Hidden Life so frustrating: For a good chunk, it is that good, and then for another chunk, it's not. And it'd be a lot easier to justify the second half's nü-ness if A Hidden Life wasn't three hours long.
A Hidden Life has a lot of plot for a Malick movie—i.e., it has one. Based on a true story, the film follows Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who, along with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and his three daughters, farms in a jaw-droppingly gorgeous village in Austria's mountains. (With its rocky, cloud-wrapped crags and its shockingly vivid greens, A Hidden Life might be Malick's most visually stunning movie, which is really saying something.) But WWII is raging, and after a brief stint in the army, Franz refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler, at which point everything goes to shit. The Jägerstätters' increasingly bigoted, clannish neighbors turn against the family—there's a lot of spitting and glaring—while roving Nazis start harassing Franz, and Fani is all but banished.
A Hidden Life works best in this early conflict—Franz' desire to retreat to a quiet, bucolic sanctuary and let an insane world kill itself is, in 2019, pretty understandable. But as the movie grows increasingly dark, it also grows increasingly repetitive. By the time Franz leaves the village and finds himself in a colorless concrete prison—its generic dourness all the more dispiriting when contrasted with Fani's life in the mountains—A Hidden Life slowly smears into a dreary streak of glumness. What we learn early on—that Nazis are dicks, that nature is better than prison, that God does not answer prayers, that nationalism is insanity, and that, for better or worse, Franz prizes his principles over his family—we learn again, and again, and again. The film's length isn't the problem. Malick's made plenty of long movies that are riveting, even hypnotic—and at first, A Hidden Life seems like it will be another. It isn't.
A Hidden Life is now playing at Regal Fox Tower 10.