The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick's personal epic dazzles and confounds
Published: June 8, 2011
Directed by Terrence Malick
Opens June 10 at the Charles Theatre
What can one man’s intensely personal spiritual quest offer other people? That’s the question that rattles around the brain like a small-caliber slug after sitting through Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. For 138 minutes, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki hijack that part of your brain that searches for meaning and inundate it with some of the most potent images to hit a movie screen, much less hit a movie screen in the context of one movie. Kids giddily chase after a truck spraying thick clouds of DDT into the air. A father frames his son’s tiny foot between the palms of his hands. A mother and her three boys play in the idyllic warmth of the home while the overbearing father is away. These moments cling to the retina as if branded there, and while Life often establishes a hypnotic sense of visual poetry, when it’s finished spooling there’s a void left inside the brain/body where the meaning—context, lasting impression, hell, a point—should be.
And that’s an important element, because if nothing else, Life is a metaphysical journey—by definition the act of traveling from one place to another. Life’s quest cuts a prismatic, circuitous path—in parts, Jack’s journey from boyhood (Hunter McCracken) to grown man (Sean Penn), the path from Edenic childhood through innocence’s loss, the path from, well, the beginning of time to the age of man—but unlike even in Malick’s most ephemeral narratives (The Thin Red Line, The New World), the narrative logic stringing everything together here feels elusive to the point of being obtuse.
Not that the basic storyline is hard to understand: In 1950s Waco, Texas, an of-his-era strict father (Brad Pitt) and a celestial mother (Jessica Chastain) raise their three boys, eldest Jack and his brothers (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan, who have character names listed alongside their names on imdb.com, though this reviewer doesn’t recall them from watching the movie at all). Father wears ties and glasses and teaches his sons about survival of the fittest, how to succeed in this world, and appreciates classical music and plays organ in the church; the Renaissance-painting beautiful mother tends to wounds and laughs and only wants her sons to learn to love. They witness a boy drown at a pool. Jack experiences his first pangs of sexual curiosity when he breaks into a house and steals a woman’s slip. Death and crime and racism all swirl around the family’s fringes as it goes about its days in Waco. And the family contends with a tragedy of its own when one of the sons dies.
That’s not a spoiler—the movie’s elegiac tone is set from the very opening sounds and images: a quote from the Book of Job 38:4-7 (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . .”) and Penn’s whispered voice-over: “Brother. Mother. It was they that led me to your door.” And from that very first sight and sound combination, Malick establishes Life’s guiding logic: What’s going to follow is an elusive series of at times poetic snippets of voice-over narration (or commentary or internal monologue or dream or death hallucination) paired with images that confound traditional film language. The bulk of the family narrative unfolds during a middle section that, thus far, feels beloved by critics of the baby-boomer generation who grew up around the same time (Malick himself grew up in 1950s Texas). There is something emotionally effective about these scenes, however, a balance of childhood naivete and an emerging familiarity with adulthood’s casually cruel compromises that lends the scenes a beatific nostalgia, in that sense that childhood’s amber luster feels to grow shinier and more idealized the further removed you are from it.
What’s perplexing, and a tad frustrating, is the manner in which Malick presents his fever dream. Life conforms to little conventional film grammar: Scenes of ’50s life in Waco alternate with flashes of Penn’s adult Jack seemingly working/living simultaneously in downtown Houston and Dallas (which will be known only to eyes familiar with both city’s skylines), which alternate with pyrotechnic images from the Hubble Space Telescope, breathtaking photography of waterfalls and volcanic activity, and an ethical moment involving CGI dinosaurs. Moreover, few images in this entire movie conform to conventional compositions. Malick has always displayed an intuitive knack for creating images that linger in the eye far after the movie ends: Richard Gere’s face hitting the water’s surface at the end of Days of Heaven, a woman in a swing swinging away from the camera but photographed upside down in The Thin Red Line, an indigenous population’s ethereal first sight of tall ships off the coast in The New World. For Life, Malick has created a movie that is nothing but those images, and puts them into an almost non-narrative linear series that flirts with a Stan Brakhage level of personal cinematic mythology.
The nagging problem with it is its effectiveness. Life is a curveball even in Malick’s oeuvre, and it isn’t the sort of ontological head trip that Stanley Kubrick peeled off with 2001: A Space Odyssey—despite Malick using the special effects wizardry of 2001 vet Douglas Trumbull and the many knee-jerk comparisons to it that Life has earned. No, what’s disappointing about The Tree of Life is that it bets all its metaphysical cards on Christian cosmology and American transcendentalism, a spiritual path that seeks sympathy from the like-minded and leaves no room for abstainers. And like all works of art that reward those who already agree with it and don’t try to engage anyone else, it can feel more than a little hollow if you’re not already on board.
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