Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Tree Of Life" Has Taken Root in my Mind

Terrence Malick has lobbed a small explosive onto the world's movie screens with the unusual, abstract and strangely affecting film "The Tree of Life".  I had high expectations for this film; I always appreciated Malick's work, his singular vision, and concern with things like the miracle of living and the fear of death. 

It is beautiful and mysterious.  It is filled with the whispered voices of the characters and their entreaties to god, or whatever power controls the universe.  It is an affirmation of the glory of even the smallest aspects of living; it is a shrine to earth's basic elements (sun, air, fire, water and flora);  it is an elegy to childhood and of  learning how to love; it is an attempt to make sense of the finality of death; and, finally, it is a statement that all life is a miracle, whether it be earth's first prehistoric life form, or an average child born, millions of years later, to a seemingly unremarkable family in an almost-forgotten time. 

It is a narrow vision, an artist's vision, not a global one.  Malick presents us with a very specific, somewhat isolated setting, but examines it closely: we are allowed to ponder every human expression, sibling intimacy, natural phenomenon; he forces us to consider such things we typically ignore as the wind blowing through curtains, or the sun shining through the leaves of an old tree.  Depending on one's view of life and afterlife, the film might try one's patience, or wash over one in a dreamy hypnotic way.  It engages the mind first of all.

I admit that I wrestled with its meanings.  I was completely overwhelmed by its beautiful, fertile imagery and constant movement; it is not possible to take it all in in one sitting.  At times awe-inspiring and at other times maddening, I had the feeling that I was part of a historic moment in American film.

It is obvious, early in the film, that there would be no conventional dramatic plot, but a vivid recreation of memory, a yearning to come to grips with ideas that are rarely examined in popular cinema, in a work that is less like a conventional movie than a piece of music, or a collage.  

Malick  stretches the boundaries of movie storytelling. Disparate, seemingly disconnected images slowly come together into focus.  There is a chronology of sorts, which is punctuated by flashbacks and flash-forwards that work visually but mean little until it's all over.  In brief, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are the parents of three boys in a small town near Waco Texas, circa the 1950's.  As the story begins, a telegram announces the death of one of their now-grown sons. 

The eldest surviving brother, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), lives a dreary corporate existence in an urban jungle of sorts.  The movie reflects the workings of his mind, as he reconstructs their boyhood, and family life (the core of the movie), and tries to make some cosmic sense of his brother's death.  He remembers his parents, a stern father who is a force of Nature, and a silent gentle mother who is a force of Grace. 

Malick's thesis is that Nature pleases itself and Grace is selfless, and that we all have to choose to live one way or another.  I wasn't sure I bought into this idea, but I kept thinking about this as the film progressed.

Jack's fleeting thoughts are attempts to reconcile life's meaning, by finding the patterns in nature that surrounded his childhood, patterns similar to the man-made ones in the architecture of his current life.  One senses that Malick is also looking for a meaningful pattern in these boyhood scenes.  He captured amazing images, and spent months assembling them.  Malick's scheme was not readily apparent to me, and I felt I was searching along with him, to understand the reasons why certain shots followed one another, or how their connections created a greater meaning.

Toward the end, in a truly rare bit of surrealism in American film, we seem to be looking at Malick's simple version of an afterlife, on a gray beach in which everyone is reunited, and where Jack's parents are finally ready to give their dead son back to the universe, having declared that love survives everything, even cataclysm and death.  This is presented matter-of-factly, with reverence and without irony.

Two final images, of a bridge, and field of sunflowers, connected for me in a subconscious way, and gave me a thrill of understanding.

"The Tree of Life" left me in a state of deep thought, but did not touch me in a deeply emotional way.  This bothered me, and I put the blame firstly on myself, with an uneasy feeling that I was either not up to its mysteries, or that maybe I was resisting a fundamental belief that permeated the whole film. 

It finally took root, as it were, in my mind, and in retrospect it has sort of blossomed, to a point where I have a deep respect for the achievement, and what Malick was trying to do.  I might not share his philosophy, but "Tree of Life" stands as a worthy visualization of an attitude about life and the unbearable mystery of death.

It occurred to me then that this movie could be a comforting experience to anyone who has lost a loved one, be it human or animal. One of the children asks his mother to tell them a story from before they can remember. "The Tree of Life" is Malick's way of doing that. Who among us has not tried to imagine the impossible, of the time before we were born?  It's as impossible as trying to consider our dying consciousness.  Malick offers us an answer. Maybe we don't believe it, and maybe we find this "unrealistic".  But it is as valid a vision as any fantasy movie, now playing at the local multiplex, that audiences swallow whole.

Malick's approach to building his story is similar to our own manner of recollecting our childhoods, in small snippets of memory coupled with larger segments of intensely emotional life-scenes, and even buried bits from our mind's junk drawer, like a bubble bath, or a dog's face, or a bit of neighborhood mischief, or even the way the grass grew between the cracks in the sidewalk.

In this part of the story, Malick's leisurely method has elicited characterizations that are less acted than lived-in.  Pitt is a revelation, combining the macho expectations of men of that era with a quiet regret of forfeiting his artistic dream.  (His would have been a marvelous portrayal in "Revolutionary Road".)  Chastain is asked to be a saintly presence, and fulfills the role perfectly.  She is convincing as a woman struggling to understand her husband and act as an idealized, positive force for her sons. As young Jack, Hunter McCracken is astonishing in one of the finest, most natural pieces of work by a child performer in many a film.  Sean Penn has a thankless role, and is not entirely convincing as the adult that McCracken will become.  But I had an odd attachment to him. I identified with his existential confusion, his need to make sense of it all.  He says it all in his expression.

I enjoyed Malick's careful depiction of the lazy afternoons filled with play; the closeness of the brothers, who are real kids and not movie brats. I could have done withot the voice-overs...they often acted counter to the meaning conveyed by the images.  This movie sounds beautiful too, with a combination of natural birdsongs, sounds of rushing water, and elusive bits of spoken word, and a music track featuring evocative classical pieces, eerie bells, and original pieces by Alexandre Desplat.

Finally I must mention Malick's audacious rumination on the earth's beginnings, complete with volcanic eruptions, sperm-like movements of celestial bodies, and a quiet moment in which two dinosaurs may have exhibited the first stirrings of altruism.  The sequence carries no explanation, and ends as suddenly as it begins.  In its surprising originality and brilliant graphics, it is a sequence I will hope to study repeatedly in the future.

Is it profound or pretentious? Brilliant or simplistic? I think it is all of these, but most of all it is brilliant, and provocative, and I want to see it again.

I think pop culture is that which comes to its audience, pre-packaged to meet the broadest expectations of the millions who will pay to consume it: Pop culture asks for our approval.  Art, on the other hand, invites us to come to it, consider it, allow our perceptions to be changed by it, but does not require our approval.  It can be threatening to those not equipped or too hurried to meet it on its own terms.  To these, this film will seem meaningless and merely pretentious.  We might expect it to be more complex than it is, or we may be surprised at a simplicity that we may have never considered.  Sometimes what is profound or most beautiful is also most direct and simple, like some poetry. 

"Tree of Life" is a return to a kind of artistic sensibility that seemed to die with Ingmar Bergman.  Terrence Malick, in his desire to visualize the metaphysical, is a worthy successor to this kind of art.


  1. Thank you for this marvelous piece of writing Tom, one of the most intriguing things about Tree of Life is the way it sparks great creative criticism.

    I'm beginning to really look forward to catching it and being able to join the conversation.

  2. Ben, what a welcome message of support from you. I cannot wait to discuss this movie with you. Thank you for reading and responding...I had a hard time getting this one "out" but I had great fun polishing it and getting it to flow.