Terrence Malick’s movies are unique, but they are also divisive. You either like them or you don’t. Some will think Terrence Malick’s movies as groundbreaking, insightful, and moving pieces of work, whilst others may believe they are pretentious, laborious, and unengaging.
So why do Malick’s films have such a polarising reputation? This article will help you understand why this may be the case. But it will also illuminate the profound philosophical themes that Malick is pushing forward, and illustrate how these ideas may be able to help us on a personal level. This will be predominantly explored through his fifth feature: The Tree of Life (2011).
But first, we should find out who Terrence Malick is. We can then start to understand his cinema after understanding his life.
Terrence Malick was born on the 30th of November 1946 in Ottawa, Illinois. He had two younger brothers called Chris and Larry. Larry tragically committed suicide at a young age, and Malick’s experience of this has been expressed and explored through some of his films.
He studied at Harvard College and gained a B.A. in Philosophy, before undertaking graduate work as a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford. Malick left Oxford without finishing his studies and eventually returned to the USA, taking up a post teaching philosophy at MIT. Malick appeared to be constantly concerned with the philosophical study of phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of human experience in the world and the way certain things are exhibited to us through our human perception. It is the study of the structure of consciousness and experience.
Philosophers who he was particularly engaged with included Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He even translated Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons from German to English and had the translation published in 1969. Malick was also taught by the philosopher Stanley Cavell whilst studying at Harvard. Cavell was an intense follower of Heidegger.
Malick is first and foremost a philosopher. He experienced tragedy in his early life and committed himself to the study and understanding of philosophy. The structure and facets of individual experience were his primary concern. All this weaves into his filmography to create the oeuvre that he has today.
Malick started his career in film as a scriptwriter, revising scripts before eventually writing and making his own features. We can now see what may have influenced Malick’s films and the ideas that they address. Next, we need to see what it is about Terrence Malick’s movies that make them a Terrence Malick’s movie, and why they are so divisive.
There are several aspects to Malick’s movies that create the stir or dislike amongst audiences today. He entered the cinematic arena in the so-called ‘American New Wave’ of Hollywood in the 1970s with Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) – these are his most conventional films and probably least controversial.
A 20-year hiatus followed until Malick returned with The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). He then followed this in creating a collection of more ambiguous and experimental films, starting with The Tree of Life (2011) up until Song to Song (2017). A Hidden Life (2019) is a historical war drama and is his latest film.
There are elements of Malick’s films that remain constant and present throughout his body of work. However, the variations and development in his style led to his films being quite difficult to watch and engage with for some. His profound philosophical themes regarding life, meaning, love, and existence (amongst others) are present. It’s just that the way he presents them through the medium of film can be quite an acquired taste.
We can assess Malick’s films and explore these matters through three significant elements. Then we can understand how and why Terrence Malick’s movies can be of profound help and importance to us all.
The conventional narrative structure of a screenplay is a three-act structure consisting of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Events play out in a clear format so that the story is shown in an engaging and captivating way, and so that there are satisfying character arcs. But this isn’t true of all screenplays and all films.
Some writers like to change the narrative and reshape it into something that isn’t traditional. A non-linear narrative is an example of this (when events or scenes don’t happen in chronological order), but the story can still be followed and there are characters that we can empathise with.
The criticism against Terrence Malick is that the narratives of his films become increasingly hard to follow as we progress through his oeuvre (excluding Badlands and Days of Heaven, which are the closest of his films to a conventional structure). They become almost plotless.
This is seen more explicitly in his latest films, for example, The Tree of Life. Here we see Jack (Sean Penn) in modern-day grieving for his brother who died at the age of nineteen. Jack is now a grown man and the film intersperses between the modern-day, Jack’s flashbacks of his childhood and various rhapsodical and fantastical scenes expressing his thoughts and consciousness. The film delves into huge questions like the meaning of life. There is even a sequence presenting the formation of the universe.
The Tree of Life tries to deal with a lot of subject matter. It’s narrative is nonlinear and often unexpectedly cuts between intimate moments of Jack’s life and more epic and seemingly impersonal scenes. There isn’t a conventional story and there isn’t a conventional plot. It is more of a montage of Jack’s memories and thoughts with an interjection of the origins of life and the universe.
It’s clear to see how it doesn’t sound like an easy watch. It can be seen as a masterpiece and a groundbreaking piece of cinema, or something that lacks any coherent narrative or plot points for an audience to engage in. Here we can see how divisive a Terrence Malick’s film can be.
The stylistic elements of Malick’s films are the features that can make his films instantly recognisable. The chances are you’ll be able to guess the director if you watch 5 minutes of any of his films and see even one of these aspects. His various pieces of work are meditations on philosophy and are visually breathtaking. But how does Malick achieve this?
Voiceovers in these films serve as the most explicit gateway into the philosophical thoughts and reflections of individual characters, and the film-maker himself. The speech looming above the scenes provides insight into the internal conflicts of characters and the existential struggles that surround them. They also simultaneously serve as snippets into Malick’s preoccupation with phenomenology and existential philosophy.
The audience is left to ponder what is being said and what the characters are feeling as the voiceover ambiguously floats through scenes.
Malick’s films are visually stunning. This is probably an objective fact about Terrence Malick’s movies. You can at least appreciate the beauty of the images projected onto the screen despite the misgivings you may have about other facets of the films. Malick’s camerawork can sweep from breathtaking landscapes (and even cosmic montages of the universe) to more intimate but no less profound shots of characters as the camera observes their strife.
This is evident in The Tree of Life. The scenes the camera captures of Jack’s memories are intimate and evocative. Some take on an element of fantasy that intentionally suspend reality for a moment and are trying to represent some profound philosophical statement.
The dramatic music and orchestral scores that accompany Terrence Malick’s movies are also an integral feature. The music harmonises with the other stylistic components to address and express the characters dilemmas, and the philosophical ideas of the film. Music carries us and transports us through The Tree of Life and helps to indicate when a scene is more intimate and sincere, or when another is intending to present some bombastic statement.
Some of the criticisms that arise about Malick’s style may be that the voiceovers have become overly pretentious, the cinematography and sweeping camera work don’t serve any coherent plot structure and the style of the music only perpetuates a pompous reputation.
It’s obvious that Terrence Malick’s movies are presenting some weighty existential ideas. However, the style of them makes for a difficult watch. All this begs the question: is Malick’s primary focus on the telling of a story or a philosophical commentary?
Whereby, the philosophical commentary is expressed through voiceovers, characters, pictures, and sound rather than through prose (as in a book)? We can look more closely at this matter by delving into the themes of Terrence Malick’s movies.
Themes in Malick’s films assemble around ideas of phenomenology and existentialism. Phenomenology is the study of the structures of individual experience. Existentialism is the focus on humans as conscious individuals – the feeling, acting, and living person.
An overarching reflection is also cast upon man’s and nature’s place in the incomprehensible, awesome universe. The various facets of these philosophies can all lead to one puzzling and overwhelming mystery: the meaning of life and existence.
The introspective look at the individual perceptions of the characters is seen through several motifs in Malick’s films. Whether it is love, war, or grief, a lot of what we see is a meditation upon the individual human experience in the world and the internal dilemmas that characters face. This intimate look at the character’s thoughts and feelings is orchestrated through the voiceovers, camera work, and cinematography, with the score dramatising the events that play out.
We can observe this in The Tree of Life. Jack’s individual experience through the suffocation he feels in the present and the grief he experiences through his childhood memories is a prime example. Jack is presented as consumed by modern-day through towering skyscrapers and invasive camerawork – an indication of the existential angst that he feels. The camera follows and stalks him as if representing the grief that looms over him.
The flashbacks to Jack’s past are structured in a way that is meant to show memories as they truly are: snapshots of our minds – brief and momentary. Sometimes vivid, sometimes unclear, and sometimes dreamlike. These memories are a stream of Jack’s consciousness as he battles with his existential crisis.
Malick is showing the structure of an individual’s experience as they deal with a particular and painful personal difficulty. We also see Jack’s struggle in the modern-day as the camera captures how he feels and how he acts – the feeling and living individual.
Terrence Malick’s movies also tackle the human experience in relation to a wider context and not just the personal facets of our existence. This wider context is our position in the world and the universe.
Malick often directly and explicitly tackles questions of our existence through the guise of the majesty of nature or the beauty of the universe. He presents a sharp contrast between personal trauma and the natural world through his editing. Malick puts our sufferings into perspective by showing the human experience in relation to the cosmos.
There are many scenes in his films where the focus is abruptly shifted from intense personal trauma to a shot of the natural world or a natural phenomenon. Be it a snake weaving through grasslands, the image of waves lapping on the shore of an idyllic beach, fish amongst coral, or birds soaring through the sky.
Jack contemplates the meaning of his existence as he deals with his ever-present grief in The Tree of Life. Malick then puts Jack’s life into a cosmic context. His sufferings and the narrative of the film are suspended as we see a sequence that chronicles the birth and evolution of the universe, the formation of Earth, the first life on Earth, all the way up to the birth of the main character.
What is Malick trying to say when he pits our personals dilemmas up against the natural world and the universe? It shows us we are all infinitely small amongst the vast and diverse makeup of our reality, but it doesn’t mean that we and our inevitable dilemmas don’t matter. Quite the opposite.
The sharp cut from individual experience to audacious sequences like this shows that we are important, and our individual experiences are as well. It is all part of the parcel of existence. Our sufferings and dilemmas are natural just like the snake in the grasslands, just like the fish amongst the coral, and just like the evolution of the universe.
This knowledge and perspective can be used as comfort in times of struggle and suffering. Recognise the structure and facets of individual experience as natural and inevitable. Then, it will all seem a little less unfair.
The philosophy of Terrence Malick’s movies and the ideas they express can provide us with much-needed consolation during times of personal strife. We will all experience hardships, and these hardships will feel so overwhelming that overcoming them is unfathomable.
Individual experiences are often shown as existential crises by Malick. Whatever the personal dilemma the character is grappling with, there is also a looming concern over much larger, existential questions. This is the meaning of life and existence as in the case of The Tree of Life.
Malick’s films are emotionally driven philosophical commentaries. He shows us that life is hard, painful, and ridden with feelings of meaninglessness. We are all just sentient and intelligent life forms living with other beings on the same piece of rock in the same complex and incomprehensible universe. Unexplainable things can happen, but unexplainable things can also be resolved. Or, at least, we learn to live through them.
This isn’t to say that the individual experience in the world doesn’t matter (as mentioned). It does matter. It is important because it is part of the whole picture. It is part of the universe. Malick’s philosophy is precisely the study of this.
Placing the individual experience in a wider, cosmic context where even more inexplicable things have happened (that we find very difficult to understand), may help us feel a little less overwhelmed.
Perhaps our strifes will not seem so consuming. Even if it is only a little less.