Immersive Sound in the Films of Terrence Malick

by Eden Lewis

[CB: This is a guest post by Eden Lewis. She performed this insightful analysis of Malick’s sound in Global Art Cinema, a course I teach at Washington University in St. Louis. Her biography follows the essay.]


The films of Terrence Malick consistently attract attention for their lush imagery and existential themes. But what about sound?

Critics who address Malick’s sound design tend to focus on the use of voice-over narration and music in his films. Let’s look at two quick examples. In her 2001 article “Interpreting a Man’s World: Female Voices in Badlands and Days of Heaven,” Joan McGettigan writes that Malick’s voice-over is a major source of the films’ ambiguity and question posing. Voice-overs “make us suspect that we have not in fact seen as much as we should, or that at least we have not seen what the voice-over narrators have seen” (p.35). In his 2004 book on The Thin Red Line (1998), Michel Chion argues that the non-diegetic music by Charles Ives also mirrors the film’s structure of ambiguity:

[…] in trying to describe Ives’s music, the words “background” and “figure” spring inevitably to mind […] when background and figures pay no attention to each other, which is figure and which is background? Malick’s cinema asks us the same kind of question … like [Ives’s] music, Malick’s film places diverse elements side by side, without seeking to answer the question posed by their juxtaposition. (p.12)

In this blog entry, I’d like to argue that sound effects also play an important role in Malick’s films. Consider very quickly how Malick directs his sound designers to craft naturalistic soundtracks. Above all, this aim reflects his interest in telling stories that construct believable immersive experiences. In a February 2006 interview with Mix Magazine, Supervising Sound Editor of The New World (2005) Skip Lievsay reports that Malick’s “Number one issue […] was to have natural sound.” He states that Malick banned the sound editors from using reverb to create artificial effects. More than an attempt at verisimilitude, Malick saw these restrictions as authentic to lived experience; he was “keen on having the sound be a physical part of what coming to a new country, a totally virgin landscape, would be like.” Similar accounts come from the sound team that worked on The Thin Red Line (1998). The team told Mix Magazine in February of 1999 that Malick’s interest in “personalizing” combat scenes pushed them to record breathing samples from every character in the film to be added later to scenes where those characters appeared.

In short, Malick’s sound teams create an immersive effect for the viewer through the careful addition of sounds, some of which are synthesized or even out of synch. By “immersive” I simply mean that the sound pulls the audience into the subjective experiences of the characters onscreen. During the mixing phase of The Thin Red Line, a synthetic sound was added to explosions to simulate the effect of ringing ears, a choice that Malick’s sound team believes “crosses a line and internalizes the experience onscreen.” A June 2011 issue of Mix Magazine reports that in the sound design for The Tree of Life (2011) subjectivity was the driving force behind many choices, including attempts to capture what Malick calls the “sound of eternal silence.” This is The Tree of Life sound designer Eric Aadahl:

[…] you don’t perceive so much as an actual physical sound as much as a conceptual thing. There’s a tonal rumble that weaves in and out, with silence in between. Hearing it, you wouldn’t know what it was necessarily, but subconsciously there is that feeling of a timeless energy cycling.

The sound mixers also experimented with the purposeful de-synchronization of everyday sounds like footsteps. Here is The Tree of Life sound designer Eric Berkey:

Terry likes the sound to be impressionistic sometimes. Typically, you can sync in some footsteps and a room tone and make it all sound real, but what happens if you don’t? What does the viewer think when things are a bit “off”?

When considered in their narrative contexts, these choices lead to questions about human experience, much like those literally posed in Malick’s voice-overs. The questions related in the voice-overs are of course the questions characters generate when remembering their experiences, but what of the experiences themselves? Viewers are cued to recognize that the footsteps are out of synch, but why, we wonder? What does the sound of “eternal silence” cue us to ponder?

By providing puzzling sound cues to contextualize the questions asked in voice-over, Malick’s sound design pushes the viewer to consider yet another level of abstract themes. Immersive sound design, as well as the strategic elimination of character voices from the soundtrack, lays the foundation for other structuring dichotomies in Malick’s films, like public versus private, nature versus grace and destruction versus creation.

I’ll focus on two films, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, and explore the ways sound evokes death and grief in both public and private spheres. Diegetic sound cues and moments of relative quiet seek to immerse the viewer in these experiences.

A Certain Silence: Personalizing Wartime in The Thin Red Line

Loosely adapted from James Jones’s 1962 novel, The Thin Red Line centers on a group of American soldiers as they fight to take control of the Guadalcanal region of the Pacific Islands. The film’s episodic structure and ambiguous temporal organization are given a fleeting sense of unity by visual patterning and the frequent voice-overs that represent the musings of the C Company’s men. In the public setting of war these voice-overs give the viewer access to the private thoughts of the soldiers, clearly reflecting Malick’s interest in “personalizing” combat.

In public, or as a group, C Company flails against an anonymous foe, gaining perhaps a hill or a bunker but steadily losing any sense of self that connects them to reality beyond the warzone. In private the men struggle more introspectively with questions of purpose, faith and commitment, growing silent as they reach out for understanding. Let’s look at two sequences that emphasize the different sides of this public-private dichotomy, as well as the distinctive functions of voice-over and sound/silence couplings: the “public” death of Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) and the “private” death of Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel).

The death of Sgt. Keck takes place in the middle of battle. The sound design conveys the experience of Keck and the reaction of C Company’s men to his death in equal measure. The sequence, lasting only about two minutes, is dominated by relatively fast cutting (23 shots), but the sonic structure remains comparatively simple. The viewer is ushered into, through, and out of Sgt. Keck’s experience of death through a mix of dialogue, diegetic sound, and briefly, non-diegetic scoring.

As Japanese troops advance on a small cluster of men hiding behind an embankment, Sgt. Keck attempts to throw a grenade. He accidentally grabs the grenade by the pin and then throws himself against the embankment to contain the blast.

Fig. 1. The Thin Red Line.
Fig. 1. The Thin Red Line.

The sound design begins to stray from conventions of verisimilitude as the ring of the pin momentarily overtakes the sound of battle and Keck suddenly realizes the repercussions of his mistake (Fig. 1). We cut to a reaction shot from Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), which reminds us that Keck’s next choice will have an impact on the entire group. In the background two drumbeats evocative of explosions sound off before Keck throws himself into the embankment, making the decision to save the rest of the Company. The loudest sound of the sequence, the grenade’s detonation, is followed immediately by a close shot of Keck screaming inaudibly. Keck’s silent scream, building on the earlier departure from authentic sound (the pin ringing), marks the moment that Malick brings the audience specifically into Keck’s subjectivity.

The manipulation of sound becomes most salient in the final portion of the scene. Here, ambient sound design is used to indicate the subjective experiences of Keck and the Company, and this, coupled with subtle non-diegetic sound cues, leads us emotionally through the scene. With the trauma to his ears, Keck cannot hear himself scream, and as the sequence progresses this aural injury is further alluded to by the attempts of other characters to speak to him. When Pfc. Doll (Dash Mihok) tries to tell Keck that he will “make it,” his voice is masked by a tone mixed in on the soundtrack post-explosion, reminding the viewer that we remain firmly situated within Keck’s sonic point of view. As the scene progresses, this tone, which in some ways resembles the sound of a didgeridoo, grows louder and slowly progresses into a movement that then becomes the score—an evolution that coincides with Keck’s fade from consciousness. The tone’s purpose evolves as well. It first marks Sgt. Keck’s struggle to hear, and then mirrors the emotional state of the other soldiers as it reaches its final incarnation as the melancholic score.

To further emphasize the shift away from Keck’s experience (private) to the response of the group (public), the sound of Keck’s breathing is mixed higher as the scene progresses and is then suddenly cut when he dies, an unsettling acoustic turn. The moment of Keck’s death coincides with the swell of the score and a general downplay of ambient noise, as Company C searches momentarily for a way to react to Keck’s sacrifice. In a manner of speaking, the soundtrack here also searches for a point of view. Eventually, Witt is privileged; he is given a voice-over and contemplates Keck’s death, until he is brought back into the war by an explosion. The explosion acts as a transition away from Keck’s subjectivity, just as the silent scream earlier in the scene marked a transition into it.

Fig. 2. The Thin Red Line.
Fig. 2. The Thin Red Line.

By contrast, later in the film, when Witt’s chooses to protect the company, we have a decision that is not only made privately; its repercussions are experienced in private as well. After running through the woods away from the company, Witt finds himself trapped and surrounded by Japanese soldiers who eventually kill him (Fig. 2). Witt experiences death alone as a series of choices: first he baits the Japanese soldiers into a grove, then he raises his gun in a final gesture of defiance.

During the scene of Witt’s death, the sound design reflects his self-aware act of martyrdom. At the beginning of the sequence, the transition into Witt’s subjectivity isn’t marked by a particular sound cue, as it was in the case of Keck’s; rather we simply find ourselves instantly immersed in Witt’s POV. The anxiety and fear in Witt’s expression contrast with the relative quiet of the grove. But we don’t have complete silence. In contrast to the sounds of battle that dominate during Keck’s death, animals take over here; birds and frogs chatter noisily, perhaps disturbed by the sound of soldiers moving slowly through the grass. Witt is now breathing heavily, but as he accepts his fate this too cedes sonic space to the sounds of nature.

As more soldiers enter the grove, the sound design becomes increasingly abstract, again providing a counterpoint to the relatively naturalistic external sound of warfare during Keck’s death scene. A Japanese soldier confronts Witt verbally. The strangely calm cadence of his speech, which isn’t subtitled, initially takes on a rhythmic patterning that mimics that of the birdcalls. Witt falls silent, departing the soundscape as he accepts his fate. He stands still in the center of a ring of soldiers, making no attempt to answer their queries or to flee. Even when the Japanese soldier screams, Witt doesn’t flinch, and the soldier manages only to disturb two small butterflies. The soldier’s voice ultimately blends into the diegetic sound of the jungle.

Eleven seconds pass before the score begins to rise, its melody evocative of the native chant featured earlier in the film when Witt went AWOL. Witt looks up to the sky briefly before a long tracking shot backwards. The score reaches its crescendo and is joined by the crashing sound of waves that cue Witt to raise his gun to the soldiers. Almost instantaneously, the Japanese soldiers kill him.

Notably, at the moment that Witt raises his gun, the soundtrack goes silent, much like Keck’s inaudible scream, but with no bomb to explain the cause, Witt’s silence is more evocative. The cacophony of Keck’s death is contrasted with the calm of Witt’s. Where Keck struggled, Witt meets death with tranquil reserve. The sound of waves yields to the score and light filters through the trees in the grove. Suddenly, Witt swims in memory with the aborigines on his island, alive, at peace. Witt’s surrender is rewarded.

Both of these scenes are united by an immersion into character subjectivity. The sounds—from the characters’ breathing, to the gunshots and explosions, to the creature calls—are mixed so seamlessly that viewers hardly notice their complexity, but they are vital to both the naturalistic impression of the scene, its themes, and our emotional engagement with the characters.

The immersive sound in The Thin Red Line is refined in The Tree of Life. While The Thin Red Line uses sound/silence coupling to enrich the experience of death, The Tree of Life uses similar techniques to convey the emotion of overwhelming grief. 

Designing Disbelief: The Sounds of Grieving in The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life revolves around the life of the O’Brien family in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. Specifically, it focuses on the family’s reaction to the premature death of one of the O’Brien boys, RL. Malick uses his trademark voice-over technique, which serves as the major point of entry into the characters’ philosophical struggles as they try to make sense of their experiences and memories through a series of stream-of-consciousness musings. Voice-over and image seem to be more directly linked in The Tree of Life; the voice-over is often accompanied by abstract images that function as appropriate pairings for the abstract questions posed vocally about the meaning of life and faith. However, many of the film’s direct experiences of character subjectivity are nevertheless conveyed through the sound design and moments of silence. Voice-over never stands alone.

The first sequence I will discuss, one of the most emotionally charged in the film, comes at the beginning. A telegram is delivered to Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), who is alone in the family home. She reads it while walking to the dining room table where she sits and, upon realizing that her son has died, collapses to the floor. The scene comes just after Mrs. O’Brien’s voice-over distinguishes between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” She finishes the voice-over by saying, “I will be true to you, whatever comes,” a commitment to the Divine that segues into the arrival of the telegram delivery boy. The score that accompanies this voice-over also carries us into the scene, fading out from the moment Mrs. O’Brien opens the door.

The scene itself contains no dialogue and no voice-over, reinforcing the extremely private nature of this experience. At first, Mrs. O’Brien’s footsteps are accompanied by distant sounds of birds and barking dogs; her staccato steps evoke a ticking sound, as we wait to learn of the telegram’s contents. The rustling of the telegram in her hands figures prominently on the soundtrack, its crinkling almost tangible as she removes it from and discards the envelope. The attention to the envelop in this scene emphasizes its role as the bringer of bad news, and Mrs. O’Brien’s attempt to discard that news. The telegram is impersonal; she finds herself confronted by an invisible force—there is no one to blame or comfort her for RL’s death.

Fig. 3. The Tree of Life.
Fig. 3. The Tree of Life.

At the end of the scene, sound becomes especially salient. Here, Malick draws on techniques developed in The Thin Red Line—an emotionally intense moment is punctuated by the sound of waves and by a voice that falls silent. As Mrs. O’Brien is overcome with grief, she looks up and then around the room as if searching for someone in whom to find comfort (Fig 4). As the camera cranes above her and tilts down to keep her in the frame, her solitude is reinforced. At the same time the sound of distant waves, or perhaps wind, begins to rise on the soundtrack and Mrs. O’Brien’s movements fall completely silent. She screams out inaudibly—“Jack!”—before moving towards the window where she begins to collapse. Simultaneously, her high-pitched screaming sob—“Oh, God!”— fills the track, overwhelming the viewer with an unbearable verbal appeal, especially given the contrast between the sob and the earlier moments of relative silence.

This sequence bears striking resemblance to the scene of Witt’s death in The Thin Red Line, and carries similar emotional weight. As Mrs. O’Brien deals with the first waves of grief, she finds herself totally alone, isolated from family and presumably from her God. The camera movement away from her mimics the long tracking shot backward from Witt just before he is killed, and the wind/waves cue that is mixed in during this moment is analogous to the score that swells during the track back from Witt. Finally, the emotional impact of both scenes comes largely from a brief moment of overwhelming sound; for Witt’s death scene it is the gunshot, while here it is Mrs. O’Brien’s wail.

In other words, with Witt’s death scene Malick develops a cluster of techniques not just for expressing a naturalistic sensation but for conveying a rich emotion, and this scene from The Tree of Life marks a further exploration of these techniques. Malick is not interested in conveying to his audience the sensorial experience of finding out via telegram that a character’s son has died; rather he is trying to communicate through immersion into the character’s subjective state the emotion of overwhelming grief. In the moments where her movements fall silent Malick draws us into Mrs. O’Brien’s desperate feeling of sorrow, one so great that she loses a sense of contact with the world around her. This is reinforced visually: the camera moves back from Mrs. O’Brien, as it did from Witt, at the moment when she experiences the greatest feeling of isolation.

Fig. 4. The Tree of Life.
Fig. 4. The Tree of Life.

Just as this scene is analogous in some ways to Witt’s private death, a later scene in The Tree of Life resembles the public death of Sgt. Keck. After RL’s funeral, several neighbors visit the O’Brien house to offer their condolences. Fiona Shaw’s character initially appears to be another of these neighbors, though her character is in fact the grandmother (as we learn from the film’s credits). She carries on a long conversation with Mrs. O’Brien about dealing with RL’s death, noting that Mrs. O’Brien will “have to be strong now” and that “the pain will pass in time.” Mrs. O’Brien objects verbally to these statements, saying that she doesn’t want the pain to pass; she is visibly distressed by the grandmother’s attempt to console her with painful reminders of her loss: “at least you still got the other two.” As the scene comes to an end, the grandmother’s dialogue becomes a voice-over, and we cut to a shot that undermines Malick’s trademark “through the trees” image by depicting a dark tree, barren of leaves. The shot is held until we hear the offscreen sound of Mrs. O’Brien screaming (Fig. 5).

Throughout the scene, a strikingly inorganic, electronic tone undulates alongside the dialogue track, accompanied by diegetic sounds of birds, dogs and the grandmother’s clicking rosary beads. What purposes do such sound cues serve in a scene like this?

Some of these sounds are from off-screen sources, and as such, they serve more suggestive functions. The clicking of the invisible rosary and the despairing “invisible” scream of Mrs. O’Brien feature sounds whose sources are never revealed explicitly and suggest the deeper spiritual and existential resonances of this very public attempt to deal with grief. But these themes—evoked indirectly—stand apart from the sounds and visuals that directly represent Mrs. O’Brien discomfort while talking to the grandmother. In this public setting Mrs. O’Brien struggles to contain her grief, just as she does in an earlier scene where she smiles through tears to wave to a neighbor watering his yard.

The techniques used in this public display of grief differ markedly from the physical and vocal abandon Mrs. O’Brien displays when she receives the letter. The electronic resonating tone emphasizes an entirely different kind of narrative development. As her conversation with the grandmother progresses, Mrs. O’Brien slowly loses her composure, and her initial reaction—silent tears—slowly gives way to vocal sobs. Malick uses the electronic tone, separated from the rest of the diegetic sound, as a subtle sonic indicator of Mrs. O’Brien’s modulating mood and affective response. This building pressure is accompanied by the rising volume of the electronic tone, which culminates with Mrs. O’Brien’s offscreen scream at the close of the scene—a scream that betrays her true feelings, albeit only to the viewer. As it does during the death of Sgt. Keck, immersive sound cues the viewer to the private emotional state of individual characters even in the midst of very public acts and encounters.

Malick’s Sound Beyond the Voice-Over

The importance of Malick’s sound design extends far beyond voice-over. In many of his films, sound effects and moments of relative silence give the audience access to characters’ subjective experiences. By depicting the experiences of death and the emotions of grief in both public and private spheres Malick gives the viewer the means through which he or she can begin to interpret a film’s many themes.

What I’ve endeavored to do here is to argue through close analysis for a more holistic approach to Malick’s sound design. Close attention his techniques can illuminate the value of reading the voice-over and immersive sound design as two aspects of a thematically rich formal system. Terrence Malick’s cinema is structured by dichotomies; it is a cinema that explores the collision between disparate elements and asks it viewer to seek meaning from their collision. When this principle is extended to investigations of sound another layer of his films emerges. In the examples I’ve used here the immersive sound design leads us to questions of private and public experience. It is in its contribution to this layering of meaning that Malick’s sound design becomes so integral to his cinema as a whole.

Eden Lewis is a senior at Washington University in St Louis studying Illustration and Film and Media Studies. In 2013 she presented a version of this essay at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Undergraduate Conference. This year Eden is applying to graduate programs in both film studies and visual culture studies.