Tree of Life seeks to reconcile one child’s troubled upbringing with the entire history of the universe.
“Other people make movies,” my brilliant friend and colleague Matt Zoller Seitz is fond of saying. “Terrence Malick builds cathedrals.”
A sainted figure amongst hard-core cinema buffs, Malick disappeared for a couple of decades between 1978’s rhapsodic Days Of Heaven and 1998’s startling WWII epic The Thin Red Line. Fed up with the Hollywood game, Malick busied himself in the interim teaching philosophy at MIT, translating Heidegger and bird-watching. Pegged in the press as a freaky recluse just because he doesn’t like giving interviews or attending awards shows, Malick seems to have inherited Stanley Kubrick’s throne as our resident slow-working artiste, unencumbered by the usual show-business nonsense.
The films themselves burnish the legend. His first four pictures (the other two are 1973’s Badlands and 2005’s The New World) increasingly abandon traditional notions of scene structure in favor of vivid, Emersonian transcendentalism. Whether tackling the battle of Guadalcanal or the founding of the Jamestown colony, Malick’s movies never assume that the characters are more important than their surroundings. Any given blade of grass or stray animal is just as worthy of a close-up as a movie star. The running thesis is that all living things coexist as part of the same continuum, a somewhat hippie-dippie notion that nonetheless makes me sob like a toddler with a skinned knee whenever I watch The New World’s last five minutes.
The Tree Of Life, a dream project 30 or so years in the making, is in many ways the ultimate expression of Malick’s worldview. Even the title flirts with self-parody, and the picture seeks to reconcile one child’s troubled upbringing with the entire history of the universe. It is by turns rapturous and astonishing, and occasionally a little bit silly. I adore the ambition and am in awe of the accomplishment, even if I’m still not sure it all quite hangs together in the end.
Taking the form of a whispered prayer to a God who may or may not be listening, the fractured narrative unspools in symphonic movements. Essentially plotless, The Tree Of Life follows the O’Brien family, living in 1950s Texas, and begins with the mysterious death of one of their three sons. Adult Jack (Sean Penn) wanders the modern-day world with barely a line of dialogue, dwarfed by modernist architecture and reflecting upon not just his past but also the formation of the solar system.
With an assist from visual-effects legend Douglas Trumbull, who pioneered this technology with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick cycles back a few billion years to the Big Bang. We’re swept away in a visually ecstatic, self-contained set piece that incorporates everything from the original underwater cellular mitosis to dinosaurs learning compassion. It keeps coming back to the director’s ever-present catchphrase: “All things.”
But what sticks in your gut is the astonishing mini-movie plopped into the middle, a searingly personal account of Malick’s own boyhood with his emotionally distant, slightly terrifying father (Brad Pitt). Photographed in golden light by genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, these tersely edited, elliptical sequences evoke a child’s wide-eyed view of the world. There’s not a conventional shot in this segment, with a roving camera hovering four feet off the ground and in constant motion. Scenes and sensations bleed into one another like half-remembered dreams.
Pitt’s extraordinary performance presents a man hardened by life who seeks to instill some necessary grit in his lads, even if that means knocking them around a bit. Their mother (Jessica Chastain) is given short shrift and mostly stands around looking like a beatific symbolic construct. (In one poorly judged moment, she even flies.) But it’s Pitt’s occasional cruelty that lingers. Beneath the military brush-cut and horn-rimmed glasses, he wears the ineffable sadness of a man who knows that life is going to dole out much worse to these kids, so it’s for their own good that he’s such a hardass bastard all the time.
It’s tricky after only one viewing, but I think I have a handle on what Malick was going for here. God, who inflicts such seemingly senseless suffering, is juxtaposed with an earthly father who has the same inscrutable methods. (That quote from The Book Of Job at the beginning is kind of a tipoff.) But I’m still not 100 percent convinced that Malick is able to reconcile the quotidian with the celestial. For all his cosmic musings, The Tree Of Life plays best when it stays closer to home. His final sequence on a mystical beach feels unfortunate, at best.
Still, what a wonder this film is to behold! The Tree Of Life boasts at least a dozen images I may never be able to shake. Malick’s reach exceeds his grasp—but man, that is one hell of a reach.
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely