You may feel it already. The attention is building at an unnerving pace. Rumors propagate, release dates arise—and disappear with the blink of an eye. Images, yet to be projected on any screen, are hailed as otherworldly by description alone. The hype aggravates and seduces in equal measure, forming a clear dividing line among cinephiles. There is no middle ground in the cult of Terrence Malick.

The American director all but created the myth that surrounds him and his work. Only a few images of the man are available, and no distinctive interviews: He has steadfastly refused to discuss his work with the press. The long seclusion between his second (Days of Heaven) and third (The Thin Red Line) films, a period of almost two decades from which many thought the director would never emerge, deepened the mystery. To prepare for the release of Malick’s latest big-screen event, The Tree of Life, at the Cannes Film Festival, the Museum of the Moving Image is offering a retrospective of his first four films May 13–15.

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick's The New World starring Colin Farrell

Malick favors wide-open spaces, where the natural elements take on a life of their own. His 1973 film Badlands is filled with the sounds of nature, but also the sounds of silence; the idyllic Eden our murdering innocents retreat toward initially, beaming with life, is contrasted as they move down the open road with the soundtrack of a barren, stark wasteland. Days of Heaven is told in elliptical impressions and whispered flurries, as if the narrative is in fact written in the wind. We’re only catching glimpses: an argument here, the roaring of the tall grass, a scarecrow burning in the golden hour sun. The calm before the storm.

This continual drift from moment to moment, speckled with epiphanies, is whittled down to its refined musical rhythms in The New World. Ostensibly about the founding of the Jamestown settlement, the film floats around the aimless desire between Pocahontas and John Smith (Colin Farrell), building up and letting down its hold over us, ever so gently. The power of the film is accumulated, never fully realized till its masterful and hypnotizing ending, set against the circling, overbearing strings of Wagner. It’s a scene of dizzying heights and rarefied energy, barraging the senses. “I thought it was a dream,” Smith whispers reluctantly, and we understand exactly what he means.