Auteur Theory: Terrence Malick

The auteur theory privileges the director as the ‘author’ of a film text through their recognisable use of cinematic style; including sound, cinematography, editing and mise-en-scene.  First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, the theory was applied to directors working within the Hollywood studio system, notably a staple of the Cinémathèque, and looked favourably upon the once dismissed Hollywood careers of European directors such as Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang (Wollen 1999, pp. 520).  Wollen (1999, pp. 520) states that there are two schools of auteur critics, “those who stressed style and mise-en-scene”, and those who focused “on revealing a core of meanings, of thematic motifs”.  The cinematic works of Terrence Malick, and his role as the auteur, can be analysed by applying both schools of theory and examining his use of cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene and editing, and thematic elements. This essay will consider his first five features, beginning with Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) and ending with The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011), applying critical theory to practical examples within his films.

Days of Heaven (1968)

Days of Heaven (1968)


The New World (2005)

The New World (2005)

The cinematography of Malick’s films has been one his works most highly praised aspects, garnering multiple Academy Award nominations.  It can be argued that it is due to the cinematographer rather than the director but Malick’s constant visual style over five films, while using a different photographer in each of his first four, denies this point. Nestor Almendros was the director of photography on Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978), and praises Malick’s technical knowhow; “I found out very soon that Malick was a man who was very interested in photography, but that he also knew a lot about photography, which very few directors do” (Brooks 1978, pp. 28).  Also, Malick’s first feature Badlands was shot with the three successive photographers yet there is no discernible difference between the individuals’ work, implying that they were complying with Malick’s wholly encompassing vision for the film’s cinematography.  Malick is also known for his preference of natural light over that created in a studio, which is most evident on Days of Heaven where most of the film was shot during ‘golden hour’ (the time during which the sun has set but light still emanates from the horizon).  This alternative use of soft lighting creates a halo effect around the actor’s head while simultaneously giving very light details on the front of the actors’ faces.  In one scene, the characters of Linda and Abby talk to each other as they walk through the wheat fields. The natural backlight is so strong that it leaves the actors in silhouette, so that only their outlines are visible to the audience.  Whereas on a typical Hollywood film additional lighting would have been used to illuminate the actors’ faces, Malick breaks from this tradition; further showcasing his position as the auteur.  As Wollen (1999, pp. 521) states of an auteur, all their films exhibit “the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, the same visual style and tempo”.  This is particularly true of Malick’s cinematography, as it remains constant through all of his films and as with Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) uses almost solely natural light.  This is probably helped by the fact that, also like Days of Heaven, this film is set in the outdoors amongst nature.  By employing a constant theme in cinematography, whilst working with such notable photographers as Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler, John Toll and Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick is able to visually transcend the creative boundaries of the typical Hollywood films.

Malick’s films, with the exception of Badlands, all feature an orchestral soundtrack that is highly emotive and applicable to the images on the screen.  Working with such acclaimed composers as Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat, Malick has never worked with the same composer on separate films but each score contains the same qualities if not the same sounds.  He is known for being highly involved in the creation of his film’s score, so much so that on The Thin Red Line he is known for dispensing with much of Zimmer’s score and instead using tracks of local Polynesian chants that he had found himself.  This shows Malick’s control over the sound in his films, but can also lead to the devaluation of his status an auteur compared to someone such as Tom Tykwer, who composes his own score.  However, Wollen (1999, pp. 530) states “film is a result of a multiplicity of factors, the sum total of a number of different contributions”.  This, he says, is in complete opposition to the auteur theory, which places the ‘directorial factor’ above all others. Wollen (1999, pp. 530) rather describes the auteur theory as taking “a group of films – the work of one director – and analysing their structure”.  When applied to Malick’s filmography (up to and including 2011) and his use of sound, this sees Malick rise in his stature as an auteur as, although he did not compose the score, he was most definitely the ‘author’ of the film and the score’s connection with the moving image.  Similarly, Malick’s use of diegetic sound, or the lack of sound, is individual and distinct (the hallmarks of an auteur).  Throughout Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005), the sounds of nature are made a prominent aspect of the film. The sounds of birds, crickets, and leaves are almost constant and represent man’s connection with nature.  Speaking of the silence in Malick’s films, Schaffer (2000) states that in The Thin Red Line

Even before the first shots ring out, silence fills the entire screen and my body with the stilled violence of anticipation. Not just an aural silence, not just the absence of anything to be heard, but also a silence of colours, camouflage rendering the shifting human figures nearly indiscernible.

The lack of dialogue in his films is also distinct, with great periods of Days of Heaven showing the lives of itinerant farm workers whilst never inviting the audience to empathise through the use of dialogue, as dialogue is a tool used to bring the viewer into the story.  Malick’s intention is always to have the viewer on the outside, watching the events on screen (and being aware that they are doing so), much like the films of Jean-Luc Godard, one of the original proponents of the auteur theory.

The New World (2005)

The New World (2005)

Mise-en-scene and editing are not particularly evident on screen ways of defining Malick’s status as an auteur, but rather the method in which he uses these elements is individualistic and distinctive.  Out of the five motion pictures that Malick has directed (as yet released) he has only used one constant crewmember, production designer Jack Fisk.  Noted as an exceptional designer, Fisk has worked on films such as Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) along with Malick’s films.  As Fisk states on Making The New World (Lynch, 2005), Malick uses “360 degree” sets when filming so that the camera and the actors can spontaneously move wherever they need to.  This encourages physical interpretation from the actors, whilst also allowing for improvisation from the crew, particularly the angles that the camera will use.  Accordingly, Fisk must build complete working models of sets, such as the Native American tents in The New World, rather than the single walls or roofless structures that are commonly used in Hollywood sets.  This production design also influences Malick’s use of editing.  By encouraging the actor’s interpretation Malick will shoot a large amount of footage, also the fully constructed sets allow him to shoot copious amounts of scenery and nature.  This is then refined into a feature length film in the editing room, with Malick employing up to four editors on a single film.  Not only the method of editing but also the style on the finished film is distinct to Malick’s filmography.  Particularly in The Thin Red Line Malick chooses to intercut images of nature, both literal and symbolical, with plot-driving images.  In one particular scene in which the American soldiers, attempting to take a hill occupied by the Japanese, are being wounded all around Malick cuts to an image of a crippled young bird crawling along the ground, unable to fly and images of bullets hitting palm trees.  This breaks the mould of traditional New Hollywood films that revolve entirely around the plot, rather than symbolism and beauty for the sake of spectacle, as Malick’s films could be described.  By differing himself from other directors and filmmakers, Malick is once again signified as an auteur and a constant user of these particular cinematic techniques and style.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Malick’s films appear to be meditations on life, death and man’s place in the natural world, while also showing the futile nature of humanity.  Danks (2000) states that Badlands “is in turns elegiac and dispassionate, presenting a fascinating portrait of opaque, vaguely motivated characters drifting across an ethereal landscape”, a phrase that could readily describe any of Malick’s films.  Before becoming a filmmaker Malick studied philosophy and psychology at Harvard, and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, before working for Life, The New Yorker and Newsweek as a journalist (Lee, 2002) and this background is readily apparent in his filmic works.  As Lee (2002) states regarding Badlands,

What’s immediately unusual about the film is its lack of interest in trying to explain the causes of its protagonists’ (Kit and Holly) violent behaviors, and furthermore, its lack of moral judgment of these individuals or the culture that produced them. Instead the film’s focus is concentrated on their experience of alienation from the world that they inhabit and its values.

Many critics have likened this view to that of Heidegger, a famous philosopher that Malick has worked with (Donugho 2011, pp. 360).  Lee (2002) reiterates this view when he writes;
“As Heidegger might put it, the intelligibility of the world and the values people share are, at bottom, not based on justifications, nor are they arbitrary. It is a given fact, if you will, that they are (sic) based neither on unshakable foundations nor on arbitrary consensus”.  This view that man is insignificant when compared to nature, both in size and in meaning, is at the centre of all of Malick’s films, particularly The Tree of Life.  The film follows the life of one boy from birth to middle age yet it is about so much more.  The viewer also sees dinosaurs showing compassion and various wonders of the natural world both on earth and in the universe.  Reprising Heidegger’s philosophy once again, Malick is able to meditate on the creation of life, and the comparable insignificance of humanity’s problems and issues.  This continuous theme throughout Malick’s entire filmography is once again a confirmation of his status as an auteur.  As Wollen (1999, pp. 532) states of the director’s role as auteur,
“The structure is associated with a single director, an individual, not because he has played the role of artist, expressing himself or his own vision in the film, but because it is through the force of his preoccupations that an unconscious, unintended meaning can be decoded in the film”.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Overall, the auteur theory defines an auteur as the recognisable author of a range of film texts, through the use of cinematic style and thematic consistency.  This does not mean that all films by an auteur look the same, sound the same and contain the exact same ideas; but rather the underlying style and philosophy of the directorial auteur is present in all of his/her films.  Terrence Malick’s first five films definitely classify him as an auteur under this definition, but how useful is an auteurist approach?  By examining Malick’s use of cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene, editing, and the underlying themes of his work, one can see that Malick’s all encompassing vision has created films of great depth and poignancy.  Without identifying Malick as the auteur the incredibly deep themes of his work would not be identified and the connection between films lost.  In conclusion, the auteurist critical approach is necessary to distinguish the aims and intentions of a film, as well as the deeper meaning contained within.


Danks, A 2000, Death Comes as an End: Temporality, Domesticity and Photography in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Senses of Cinema, viewed 14 November 2012, <;.

Donougho, M 2011, ‘ “Melt earth to sea”: The New World of Terrence Malick’, Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 359 – 374.

Lee, H 2002, Great directors: Terrence Malick, Senses of Cinema, viewed 14 November 2012, <;.

Lynch, A (dir.) 2005, ‘Making The New World’, DVD, New Line Home Entertainment.

Riley, B 1978, ‘Nestor Almendros interviewed by Brooks Riley’, Film Comment, vol. 14, no. 5, pp. 28 – 31.

Schaffer, B 2000, The shape of fear: thoughts after The Thin Red Line, Senses of Cinema, viewed 14 November 2012, <;.

Wollen, P 1999, ‘From signs and meaning in the cinema – the auteur theory’, in Braudy, L & Cohen, M (eds), Film theory and criticism: introductory readings, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 519 – 535.


Malick, T (dir.) 1973, Badlands, DVD, Warner Brothers.

De Palma, B (dir.) 1976, Carrie, DVD.

Malick, T (dir.) 1978, Days of Heaven, DVD, Paramount Pictures.

Malick, T (dir.) 2005, The New World, DVD, New Line Cinema.

Malick, T (dir.) 1998, The Thin Red Line, DVD, Twentieth Century Fox.

Malick, T (dir.) 2011, The Tree of Life, DVD, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Anderson, PT (dir.) 2007, There Will Be Blood, DVD, Miramax Films.


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