21 Ways You Know You're Watching A Malick Movie

by Anna Klassen

In today's media-saturated landscape, few filmmakers truly fit the definition of an auteur. However Terrence Malick, who will release his latest feature Friday, March 4, has complete artistic control over his work and truly adheres to the definition. His art house style seeps into every shot of Knight of Cups , starring Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett, and at this point, audiences know what to expect when they buy a ticket to a Terrence Malick film.

He no longer makes the more commercially accepted films he was once known for, such as The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Badlands. With his most recent films, the director and writer seems to have traded in big box office pay outs for a specific, unique, and not so conventional vision. The 72-year-old director graduated from Harvard with a degree in philosophy many moons ago, so it's no surprise that as his more mature works bring with them a specific, abstract context.

His last three films, The Tree of Life, To The Wonder, and now Knight of Cups, especially adhere to his newfound filmmaking mindset (though his older films show many symptoms of this lyrical style, as well). So here are 21 ways you know you're watching a Terrence Malick flick.

1. It Celebrates Nature

It is perhaps the most obvious point on this list, but anyone who has seen a single Malick film knows that the man has a deep and complicated relationship with nature — at least his protagonists do. All of his films celebrate the outdoors with wide, dynamic, and just plain jaw-dropping shots of Mother Nature's greatest treasures. From the ocean, to golden fields, to rocky mountains and everything in between, a Malick picture is not complete without many, many, many gratuitous shots of landscapes and scenery.

2. It Has A Star Studded Cast

Malick has never been lacking for stars itching to be part of his artsy flicks. The Tree of Life nabbed Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. To the Wonder scored Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem, and Knight of Cups stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman.

3. It Contrasts Man's Shortcomings With The Beauty of Nature

We've established that Malick is all about nature shots, but what he loves doing, and what sets him apart from other Mother Nature fetishists, is that he will pose a particularly grueling or depressing scene showcasing man's shortcoming, then quickly cut to a dazzlings, calm, and serene wide shots of nature. What is he trying to say, I wonder?

4. There Is Very Little Dialogue

There is very little character-to-character dialogue exchange in his films. However, there is a ton of...

5. Meditative Narration From Multiple Characters

It appears that Malick wants his characters' inner-dialogue to become the audiences' inner-dialogue, and so he often gives stream-of-consciousness narration to his main characters so we can remain inside their heads.

6. Lots Of Physical Movement

While his characters do little talking, they (especially the women of Malick's movies) are quite physically active. Their favorite activities include: Spinning, twirling, dancing, bending, twisting, whirling, leaping, and generally being whimsical in their movements.

7. Self-Reflection

This goes hand-in-hand with the characters' inner dialogue, but self-reflection, usually the protagonist contemplating the choices he's made in his life thus far, is a standard feature of any TM flick.

8. A Gorgeous, Orchestral Score

The music in Malick's movies is always very similar: A classic orchestral score with heavy organs and wind instruments. It's beautiful, and predictable.

9. Magic Hour Shots

Magic hour, or golden hour, is the time shortly after sunrise or shortly before sunset when everything seems to have a beautiful, magical glow. Malick utilizes this time of day constantly, and consistently features his protagonists exploring nature during the magical time of day.

10. Familial Themes

Specifically, father/son relationships are often explored in his films, usually featuring familial relationships that are wrought with deep-seeded problems and a lack of communication.

11. A Child On A Swing

I don't know why, but children on swing sets are a staple of contemporary Malick cinema.

12. Shots From Outer Space

I assume it is to further showcase how minuscule man is compared to nature or a higher being, but Malick movies often include shots — CGI'ed shots? — of outer space.

13. Spiritual and/or Religious Imagery

What would a philosophical movie be without provoking questions of man, god, faith, and existence? Malick tackles all these broad topics in his breadth of work, sometimes in obvious ways (a central Priest character in To the Wonder) or more subtle ways (lingering on a painting of Mother & Child in an art exhibit in Knight of Cups), but the potential for these questions are always present.

14. Gorgeous Women

His films have always included beautiful women, but Malick really goes the extra mile in Knight of Cups, where beautiful females appear in nearly every shot: scantily clad, twisting and twirling, and seducing our male protagonist.

15. Tracking Shots

In a TM film, you can expect to see the back of characters' heads moreso than their faces, as the camera seems to be constantly tracking their backs as they wander forward through the scene.

16. Unpredictable Camera Angles

The camera often spins, stirs, jolts, and generally has a mind of its own in Malick films.

17. Questions of Man's Mortality

There's a great scene in the beginning of Knight of Cups when Christian Bale's character, an ultra rich filmmaker living in LA, is jolted awake by an earthquake. We are reminded that while he has everything — women, money, a gorgeous home by the beach — his seemingly untouchable life is actually quite fragile.

18. Pauses or Ellipses

TM films love employing a sense of disjointedness or fluidity (and yes, I realize those are contradictory words) in their narration. Long pauses are utilized in between sweeping statements... to allow the audience to ponder what was just said... or something.

19. Evokes Emotion Through Imagery, Not Plot

It's hard to say what actually happens, plot-wise, during any given TM film. However I'm usually left with a general feeling of sadness, anger, longing, etc. after seeing one of these films. Usually what sticks with me is an emotional reaction rather than a sense of having seen a complete story unfold on screen.

20. Multiple Love Interests

Mr. Malick loves featuring exceptionally attractive females in his features (see: Gorgeous Women), so it's no surprise that his screenplays, which usually showcase a male protagonist's troubles, include a multitude of love interests — usually a marriage and extra marital affairs.

21. A Lack Of Structure

Malick said goodbye to the typical three act structure a long time ago. In Knight of Cups, the story is broken down and titled with headings of Tarot cards, such as The Priestess, Death, and The Moon.

It's safe to say anything goes in a Terrence Malick film — but his breaks from conventional storytelling are often predictable.

Images: Dogwood Films; Tumblr; Tumblr; Giphy