The term Malickian tends to be associated with footage or stills which appear to be copying the style of Terrence Malick. For this analysis we will be breaking down the main elements to Malick’s style, citing examples from his filmography.
Over his career Malick has focused strongly on the dichotomy of man and nature. His films often bridges these two concepts, usually pairing man with destruction and nature with beauty. In The Thin Red Line this is defined as the split between the jungles of Guadalcanal and the battles of World War 2. In The New World the native American Indians are in symbiosis with nature compared to the colonists who only seem capable of destroying the land. In The Tree of Life, nature and grace are dichotomously introduced as a choice for Jack to choose between his father who is Darwinian and his mother who is ephemeral.
Fire and Water
Malick has represented the man and nature with fire and water respectively. For a fantastic visualisation of this, check out this video by Kogonada. Interestingly, Kogonada has also noticed that the balance has shifted over his career, noticeably leaning more towards water than fire. This is particularly noticeable in To The Wonder (2012) which has no fire, but a lot of water (Malick still shows negative impact man has on nature through the contamination of soil and water).
The reason for this shift may be a move towards less narrative film making and aiming for more ephemeral themes like life and love. Regardless of the reason, it is clear that this symbolic use of imagery is present in his films, below in The Thin Red Line and The New World:
But he uses both images jointly, below in The New World and The Tree Of Life:
Aside from fire and water, images of nature are incorporated consistently in his film. The American country is a location used heavily, from Badlands, Days of Heaven and To The Wonder. But there are two seminal shots which are often referred to as Malickian, the upward shot of a forest with sunlight bleeding through the canopy (The Thin Red Line, The Tree Of Life and To The Wonder respectively):
Grass in the wind (The Thin Red Line , The New World and To The Wonder respectively):
And as mentioned before, flowing water (The New World, The Tree Of Life andTo The Wonder respectively):
Cinematography and the visual pallet Malick employs focuses heavily on nature and other films that use it extensively run the risk (either positively or negatively) of being described as derivative.
Camera and Framing
At times, but not always, Malick employs a naturalistic, documentary style of camera positioning. His camera appears to follow the characters as they go about their routine unbeknownst to its presence. The camera does not really spend much time on the tripod, usually beholden to the freedom given to the actor. In particular, he has a tendency of framing characters running away from the camera (First two are from The Tree Of Life and the bottom two from To The Wonder):
And under water (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree Of Life and To The Wonder respectively):
Malick is just as famous for his use of narration. However, Malick’s use of narration does not tend to deliver exposition but provides ethereal, whispered internal monologues.
Malick consistently uses orchestral or choir music. The Tree of Life trailer prominently uses both Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau and Patrick Cassidy’sFuneral March. In the trailer for The Thin Red Line, both instrumental and choir versions of the Melanesian Choir’s Jisas Yu Holem Hand Blong Mi are used. As such, pairing any of the images cited above with majestic music invokes Malick. Notice in particular the transition to Jisas Yu Holem Hand Blong in The Thin Red Line trailer with a shot of a forest canopy (Time: 2.02):
An assortment of these elements is usually what brings out substantively the concept of being Malickian. To demonstrate this I will use two case examples of when the term Malickian could be, or has been used. Also look for my visual comparison between the trailer of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) by David Lowery which takes many elements from Malick’s films.
Malickian Case Study: The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (John Hillcoat, 2007)
The opening of Jesse James provides strikes a strong Malickian chord:
The narration strikes a distinctly poetic tone, in particular the lines:
Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified
The opening is accompanied by the beautiful score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. This hems closely to Malick’s use of music.
The cinematography has a distinctly Malickian feel, with the location the American country side and the utilisation of grass:
trees and canopies:
and this striking image of a field ablaze:
which seems to have been lifted from Days of Heaven.
This mix of cinematography, images, music and narration easily draws parallels with Malick’s style.
Case Study: Man Of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
Man of Steel
The teaser for Man of Steel was a shock to film fans as it departed widely from Snyder’s auteur bag; steering clear of speed ramping, glorified violence and eclectic use of music and instead cites Malick’s style.
As a case example we will take the teaser (there are two versions, with voice over by either Jor El and Pa Kent, but the footage is the same) and the first feature trailer. Both trailers hit on every element mentioned above, and is the reason why the trailer was described (in a positive way) as Malickian. The film-going community had cynically written off Snyder’s style, usually describing his career trajectory as a downward line from the heights of Dawn of the Dead (2004) and300 (2006) (though it has its vehement detractors too), to the maligned Sucker Punch (2011).
The Man of Steel teaser opens with water washing over a rock:
With a section from the Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring original soundtrack The Bridge of Khazad Dum by Howard Shore (Time: 4.40).
As the trailer continues we hear the narration of either Pa Kent or Jor-El, over a young Clark Kent running from the camera, in grass:
With another shot of a butterfly stuck in a chain, a butterfly also appears in The Tree of Life:
In the first theatrical trailer, the opening shot is a perfect marriage of two of Malick’s elemental themes: Fire and Water, with the bonus of a person in water:
Clearly reminiscent of the underwater shots used by Malick, the image of the drowning child in The Tree Of Life is the most strikingly similar:
Again, beautiful music, Elegy by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy. The trailers stark departure from Snyder’s signature style was startling. Snyder is known for taking on other directors style, and the first trailers for Man Of Steel seemed to be following in Malick’s footsteps.