Monday, 20 April 2015

The Style of Film Director Terrence Malick

Scene from The Tree of Life, 2011

This week I have watched all six of Terrence Malick's films, including for the first time, his first two. 

Directors like Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick have made great films, and yet have never stuck to one style of filmmaking that is recognizably theirs. Their ability to change the tools of filmmaking to match each film is perhaps part of their greatness. Other directors like Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam or Terrence Malik tend to stick to a style that is uniquely theirs. Whether you like their films or not is often a result of liking their style.

So what does happen in a Malick film? What are the components of his style?


Although some films require more scripted dialogue than others, Malick, especially in later films, is known to show up every morning with ideas about the days scene, and then ask the actors to help him direct. This is aided by using the one-man mobile Steadicam and a small crew. With many moviemakers each shot is precisely predefined as to angle, content, duration. But Malick creates a set as a 360 degree environment and then films spontaneously within that. As the voiceovers added later augment and help keep the script to a minimum, there is little dialogue and the actors can create a natural, flowing feel to a scene that we immediately resonate with. This requires good actors, and the challenge seems to attract good actors.


He often uses a stabilized Steadicam and has his actors move freely, the camera and actors swirling around each other as if the camera cannot make up its mind on viewpoint, can't decide what to look at, or is saying it wants no fixed viewpoint. There are very few static shots. A constantly shifting, tracking, panning, zooming movement. This gives a sense of depth, but also disorientation. Sometimes we look over a characters shoulder, sometimes directly into their face, sometimes from down low, sometimes the camera is on a slant, sometimes the tops of actors heads are cut off. Does this mimic our ordinary way of experiencing reality, as we don't sit still, as we move our eyes around, as we haphazardly encounter the world? Does it aid in seeing that there are multiple relationships in everything?


Malick loves light. He loves especially the “magic hour”, the golden hour around sunset, and goes to great lengths to use as much of it as possible. The evening sky is often full of colour and the actors are in backlight, rimmed with golden light but with faces often dark with no fill light. Shadows are long. He likes to shoot with natural light, and avoids artificial lighting at other times. Lovers frolicking in a field in golden twilight is a frequent scene.


Malick has an amazing gift for the visual, for images, for ravishing images. Soldiers charge up a hill of beautifully waving grass. We are underwater looking up at the surface as a man, just shot, pitches head down into the water above and towards us. The camera moves directly and slowly into a grazing herd of huge buffalo. A woman walks away across the salt flats, the low sun in front of her sending her long shadow back to us. Farmers, black silhouettes against the golden sky, stand in clouds of swirling locust. He is not afraid to re-use images. One of his favourites is light and shadow on a curtain moving in an open window. And his static landscape shots are often brilliant compositions creating a beautiful image that would make any photographer jealous.


Moments out of the characters' lives are interspersed with scenes of the natural world. The sky, light through trees, birds in flight, animals and bugs, moving water. The sun making a sunstar through trees overhead is a common image. Nature perhaps becomes the immortal impartial witness to the feeble machinations of mankind. Nature contains a wonder all around us but we fail to see in it what we really wish for.


Malick makes extensive use of voiceovers, often of a musing, existential manner. There is a pensive, meditative quality added to the film. This highlights the contrast between the outer world, the hard shell and bravado of human actions, and the inner world, our confusion and the tender questioning of our hearts. It makes us aware of a reality functioning behind surface reality. The voiceover is there from his first movie, in later films it carries more of the minimal plot of the film, which allows the actors to be more improvisational.

Lets look at his films one by one....

Badlands (1973): Teenage couple on a killing spree in 1958, loosely based on a true story. His first film, hints of his later style in evidence. Voiceover by a secondary character, mostly matter of fact. Some great shots on the South Dakota plains at dusk. Introduces one of his key visual images, the lone figure set against a vast landscape and sky, usually just after sunset. Several close shots of beetles anticipates another component of his style.

Days of Heaven (1978): 1916 love triangle on a wheat farm, highly praised voiceover by young girl, amazing dusk shots of Texas (well Alberta actually) prairie. Begins to use new invention the Steadicam for swirling shots. Closeups of bugs, frogs, cattle, moving grass etc. The immense sky often highlighted and human faces underexposed, dark. Days of Heaven was unusual with so much high-contrast lighting. In conventional Hollywood at the time the lighting in each scene was adjusted so that everything was clearly lit. The film wins an Academy Award for Cinematography for Nestor Almendros, the Director of Photography. Almendros and the other DP, Haskell Wexler, can be credited with helping Malick develop his style. Malick wins Best Director Award at Cannes. This is the film that made his reputation. In Days of Heaven there is plot, yes, although I actually missed the key pivot-point of the story, half way through, with little detriment to my pleasure.

The Thin Red Line (1998): After 20 year absence the director comes back with remake of James Jones novel of US infantry fighting Japanese in the Pacific war. Voiceovers begin to ask mystical questions, more dusk shots, sometimes it's even hard to see actors faces, swirling increases, closeups of alligators, birds, sometimes at the oddest moments. Even as soldiers savage their way through a Japanese camp, one soldier's voice is tenderly asking existential questions. Malick wins the Golden Bear, highest prize at Berlin Film Festival.

The New World (2005): The story of Pocahontas and John Smith, actors and camera swirling increases, gorgeous depiction of virgin wilderness surrounding Chesapeake Bay. Coy woman frolicking in tall grass with two smitten man (at different times).

The Tree of Life (2011): the average all-American dysfunctional suburban family, but that doesn't stop Malick from including dinosaurs and galaxies and the afterlife. His best film in terms of creating real characters, a real family. Introspective voiceovers whispered. Has been called pretentious. The film wins Palme d'Or, highest prize at Cannes.

To the Wonder (2012): Man attracts women but can't commit. Something about love. Scenes of woman and man wandering around in fields at dusk certainly not under-utilized. Olga Kurylenko should get the “Best Coy Cavorter in a Malick Film” award. Maybe a little more plot wouldn't hurt. But like all his films, deeply moving.

His later movies are a showcase for his style, and somehow he manages to largely avoid any mawkish, new age sentimentality. He is not afraid to handle violence and action, The Thin Red Line has a high body count, and all his films have included scenes of aggresion.

Malick, now 71, is rumoured to have two projects in the offing. Great! I for one have not tired yet of his unique style of storytelling.

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