ByJames Dunlap, writer at
My tastes are truly bizarre. Finding and reviewing cinema's hidden gems is my forte.
James Dunlap

His films often divide critics and audiences alike, making it pretty much the least surprising thing ever that Terrence Malick has been accused of being everything from a pretentious, indulgent, and massively overrated filmmaker, to a brilliant artist and a genius. Whatever your views on his films (which, even as a fan, I will admit can tend to occasionally dip into moments of pretentiousness), there is still one thing that most cinephiles tend to agree on: The cinematography is mesmerizing in nearly every scene. It's why we keep coming back.

(Hell, even the trailers for his movies make some of my Top 5 lists).

I've been musing on this for a while -the question about why his films are so visually rich- and basically just decided to write a brief breakdown w/r/t exactly what it is about his technique that makes even his more abstract work so engaging.

To that end, I came up with five basic traits of a good Terrence Malick scene:

1. He Presents Life As It Is

'Days of Heaven' [Credit: Paramount]
'Days of Heaven' [Credit: Paramount]

In much of his early work, Malick manages to tow the line between subtle and vivid. How he accomplishes this visual paradox is through a blend of muted colors set against a backdrop of Kurosawa-esque negative space. The setting becomes a domineering presence, almost a character, but without feeling unreal or in any way phantasmagoric.

It takes an almost obsessive attention to detail to be able to bring together such an opposing mesh of concepts, but to do so repeatedly, in nearly every scene, is all the more impressive.

2. Innovative Simplicity: His Use Of Natural Lighting

'The Tree of Life' [Credit: Fox Searchlight]
'The Tree of Life' [Credit: Fox Searchlight]

Anyone who has studied film in a behind-the-camera sense knows that lighting is everything for cinematographers (and photographers, for that matter). While the average moviegoer rarely realizes it, the fact is almost every scene of nearly every movie is lit with dozens of different lights and bulbs — almost nothing is "natural."

Terrence Malick is the exception. His excessive use of natural lighting gives his films a soft, almost tender quality (or, perhaps intimate is the word), which also has the added benefit of making his movies visually unique. The lighting sets a mood that draws us in, allows us to suspend disbelief, and get lost in the story, no matter how non-linear or surreal that story may end up being.

3. The Setting Dominates

'The Thin Red Line' [Credit: fox]
'The Thin Red Line' [Credit: fox]

Malick's wide-angle framing makes sure the audience always knows exactly where they are, and that they remain in awe of it. Whether it's dreary Parisian ruins in To The Wonder, or the hilly fields of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, we are lulled into a near-constant trance, and amazed at just how strange and multifarious our planet actually is.

To put it another way: In all of Malick's films, the world itself is the most dominating presence, and a beautiful one. Every time.

4. Visuals As Metaphor

'To The Wonder' [Credit: Magnolia Pictures]
'To The Wonder' [Credit: Magnolia Pictures]

Two characters in an empty house, on different floors, away from one another. These same two characters also happen to be falling out of love. This is one of many examples that convinces his more discerning viewers that Terrence Malick supports his themes with his visuals — settings and colors are not just pretty images, but metaphors for what is happening in the film.

To be able to kill two birds with one stone with such masterful precision is why he's one of the greats.

5. It's Just Pretty, Damn It

'Knight of Cups' [Credit: Broad Green]
'Knight of Cups' [Credit: Broad Green]

And, I mean, do we really need to add anything to this?

His work is beautiful. End of story.

I hope you all have enjoyed perusing this Terrence Malick surfeit as much as I've enjoyed putting it together. If you've never seen any of his movies, hopefully this gives you the courage to add a few to your Netflix DVD queue (start with Tree of Life, my humble recommendation). And, as always, thanks for reading!


What Is Your Favorite Terrence Malick Film?


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