With the recent release of the remarkable Knight of Cups, critics and adventurous movie-goers alike have a new Terrence Malick film to grapple with. Unfortunately, the film has largely been met with dismissal rather than careful consideration. Many feel alienated by Malick’s elliptic style, mystified by his lack of traditional narrative. It’s true that Malick employs a radical and expressive cinematic language, but an understanding of his innovative and improvisational production methodology will help to approach his films on their own, unconventional terms.

Over the past ten years, director Terrence Malick has worked to develop an innovative new filmmaking methodology tailored to his unique brand of philosophical and spiritual rumination. Love it or loathe it, Malick’s style is certainly distinctive. The whispered voice-over, naked poeticism and beautific images are fawned over by some and ridiculed by others, but they’re universally recognized as part of Malick’s specific lexicon. In fact, this filmic language has become so distinctive as to lead some critics to argue, foolishly, that Malick has stagnated, succumbed to abstraction, fallen into self-parody. Malick hasn’t stagnated; he’s radically pushed his form with each film. What these critics miss, I believe, is the experimental boldness of the new cinematic syntax the artist has spent his career refining. And, like any language, Malick’s cinema offers new and fruitful modes of thinking, new pathways to poetic beauty to those open to exploring its possibilities.

Of course, Malick has exhibited a unique style and set of thematic concerns since his assured debut with 1973’s Badlands, and reemerged for 1998’s The Thin Red Line with an even more experimentally fluid approach to narrative. However, the production process responsible for Malick’s current streak of creativity and productivity can be traced back to 2005’s The New World. Since that time, the director has completed four features, with a fifth on the way, not to mention an ambitious IMAX documentary on the birth and death of the universe. With each of these features, Malick and a team of key collaborators have refined their methodology, creating in the process one of the most radical and exciting innovations of recent narrative cinema.

Malick films feel so different because they’re built around a different kind of organizing logic. Instead of prioritizing traditional character development and plot incident, this artist is concerned with unspooling an array of thematic ideas, crystallized into images. (Malick’s very conscious rejection of traditional narratives makes it particularly galling when critics refuse to meet his films on their own terms.) Like the directors of the French New Wave, Malick breaks from classical form and allows that radical spirit to permeate each phase of production. He works largely from pages of notes rather than a rigid screenplay; he seeks to capture unexpected moments of life, magic, and beauty rather than dutifully complete a prescribed shot list. His crew is small and extraordinarily nimble, able to roll at a moment’s notice without cumbersome equipment. And, emerging from these collaborative, free-form shoots with mountains of footage, Malick and a team of editors shape the images into a fluid, amorphous time-sculpture. In short, he’s trimmed the fat of a traditional bloated film production, opening up previously unthinkable avenues to inspiration, improvisation and serendipity.

Malick’s films seem to begin life as a network of interconnected themes and concepts. The Tree of Life, for example, asks questions about the quality of grace, a spiritual benevolence that transcends nature. In doing so, it riffs on the Book of Job, layers in overtones of early Christian theology, and transposes the celestial drama of Creation into the microcosm of personal memory. This musical vocabulary is not accidental. Indeed, Malick composes his films, developing cinematic “movements” around the principals of harmony, point/counter point and recapitulation. The temporal experience of a Terrence Malick film, then, is much closer to the evolution of a melody or the associative process of cognition than it is to the unfolding of a linear narrative.

To realize this unconventional vision of a film, Malick employs an equally unconventional production methodology. Guided by his thinking around the concepts and themes of a film, Malick organizes his shoots to facilitate discovery: improvisation among both the cast and crew is encouraged; unpredictable encounters with the real world are arranged; sequences are added or reconceived intuitively. Rather than work from rigid screenplays, Malick may give his actors poems, excerpts from philosophical or religious texts, isolated lines of dialogues, or snatches of inspiration from his own thinking on the themes of a film. Actors are meant to internalize these directions, however vague, and use them however they see fit. A good Malick performer, then, needs to be completely open to ambiguity and ready for anything—the director has even been known to surprise his cast, mid-shot, with the inclusion of an unexpected actor. Above all, Malick seeks to capture vitality, not a calculated performance.

Crucial to the articulation of Malick’s cinematic language and his emphasis on discovery is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki has worked with Malick since The New World and has helped the director articulate and execute his unique syntax. The pair work with a set of visual tenets, loose “rules” such as shooting in open outdoor locations, favoring natural light, eschewing symmetry, and maintaining a probing, restless movement of the camera. They’ve even begun experimenting with a grainy digital aesthetic, challenging Malick’s reputation for immaculate images of natural beauty. This shooting philosophy melds perfectly with the rest of Malick’s methodology, with his loose screenplays, improvisational acting and the single most important element of his cinematic language: editing.

Malick films are truly found in the editing room. The process of discovery and evolution encouraged during pre-production and production continues as a large team of editors (many recurring contributors as far back as The Thin Red Line) works to shape the film from the unusually voluminous material retrieved from the shoot. His films feel uniquely alive, open-ended, ever-changing, suggestive of infinite possibilities. Sequences are rearranged, loose and fluid structures are formed, themes and overtones emerge organically, voice-over is added and, infamously, entire performances are drastically cut or excised altogether. Indeed, the final film begins to emerge from its infinite possibilities in the editing, like a sculpture from a block of marble, or like a melody from a single unresolved note. Malick’s emphasis on discovery remains alive until the final mix is complete.

All of these techniques contribute to the unique quality of restless searching that animates Malick’s films. His characters, too, are all searchers. They strive for connections and understanding, for meaning and spiritual intimacy, for a grace that transcends human imperfection. And with this remarkable and radical new methodology, Malick seeks to give this quest form. There’s no single narrative in his films to trace, no single meaning to “get.” The great gift of Malick’s art isn’t to dictate answers, but to provide us with the cinematic language to ask the questions.


B, Benjamin. “Cosmic Questions.” American Cinematographer: August 2011. [a consideration and list of “rules” used to guide the shooting of The Tree of Life]

Hemphill, Jim. “Lyrical Images.” American Cinematographer: April 2013. [an interview with Lubezski about the shooting of To The Wonder]

Neer, Richard. “Terrence Malick’s The New World.” Nonsite: Issue 2. [a detailed analysis of The New World‘s production methodology]