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Last Friday, I was in New York helping a friend celebrate his 40th birthday, and after a long day of walking all over Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, we headed over to the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street to rest our feet while we took in Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated The Tree of Life.
My friend had no idea what he was getting himself into.
As I paid for my ticket, I asked the girl on the other side of the glass if she’d seen the movie. Her eyes lit up as she nodded and said “Oh yeah.” I asked her what she thought about it, and she said it was the “most Malick of all his movies.” I smiled and nodded back to her as I walked away, anxious to see how that assessment would play out.
Much has been written about Malick’s style of movie making, which is typified by loosely constructed narratives that do not adhere to traditional rhythms. Rather, his stories are like a child’s meandering exploration of a new environment, following whatever catches his attention. They are also marked by beautifully captured images, especially of nature, that sometimes overwhelm the senses. This was used to great effect in The Thin Red Line, where shots of blowing grass were allowed to linger for many beats past what would be considered normal, only to be shattered by explosions of gunfire or bursting shells. Malick also makes frequent use of voice-over narration by his characters. It’s often used novelistically, to take us inside the minds of the characters, usually as they wrestle with philosophical questions.
Malick’s fans see these characteristics as great strengths that set him apart from an increasingly formulaic style of film making that places little value on intellectual adventurism and any other kind of risk-taking. His detractors, like Richard Schickel find these traits tedious, pretentious, and self-indulgent, a kind of pseudo-intellectualism that is impossible to stomach.
And so it is with The Tree of Life, Malick’s most ambitious film, which took the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, despite drawing boos from the audience at its screening.
It’s an impressionistic story that contrasts the tragedy of one American family against the backdrop of the relentless march of time – putting into greater perspective the things that consume us and distract us from the bigger picture, namely of our God.
It’s a theme that many have found – and will continue to find – offensive, or simple-minded at best. But it’s the desperate questions that Malick’s characters ask themselves in quiet moments of pain, regret, or remorse that hound most of us, I think.
The movie opens with a quote from Job 38:4,7 – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted with joy?”
This passage is a key to understanding the movie. As these characters suffer – as we all do – there is a bigger picture, another view of the problem, but we are often too consumed with our problems, to the point of navel gazing, to lift our heads up for a different point-of-view.
The first images of the film are of the Mother (Jessica Chastain), going from a young girl to grown woman, and over the popcorn-like flashes of her life, we hear the adult version of herself telling us that “there are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace.”
And with that, we have the central conflict of the family we will come to know.
But first, there is that tragedy. Years later, as the Mother’s sons have become young men, there is a telegram delivered to her house, informing the Mother that her middle son has been killed. How this is, we never learn. Nor is it even important. She collapses under the weight of this news until finally, she gathers herself so she can tell the Father (Brad Pitt), who is traveling.
Cut to the present, where we meet Jack (Sean Penn, in a brooding role that has become all to familiar to his fans), a successful looking architect who is married and lives in a very nice home, wears nice suits, and works in a high-rise building in what looks like Houston, Texas. He lights a candle. Is it the anniversary of this event? We don’t know. But he is out of sorts. He talks to the Father and confesses that he thinks of his dead brother every day of his life. He’s stuck, unable to get beyond this tragedy, this great hurt. In voice-over, we hear Jack ask where this all began, and it is here that Malick takes us all the way back – to the very beginning, when the foundations of the earth were laid.
This passage, which is to be expanded and turned into an IMAX documentary at some future point, is Malick’s interpretation of how the earth came to be. To bring this vision to life, he employed the talents of Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a long passage that conveys us from nothingness to the violent forces that resulted in a world that eventually produced the dinosaurs, some of which are recreated with startling realism on beaches and in forests and rivers.
At the conclusion of this passage, we are transported to 1950’s era Waco, Texas, where we meet the rest of the O’Brien family.
The Mother is the embodiment of the way of grace. She is a beautiful woman, earthy and nurturing, who is often photographed as she hugs, kisses, caresses, or comforts her boys with a reassuring touch to the shoulder or arm. She holds back none of her love, and encourages her sons to do the same. At one point she warns, “unless you love, your life will flash by.”
At the other pole is the Father, who practices the way of nature and worries that his wife is making the boys soft. In response he over-compensates, never missing a teachable opportunity to drive home his philosophy of self-determinism. He’ll live to regret this, lamenting the fact that while he was busy grabbing at life he missed “the glory,” a term that is also used in The Thin Red Line to describe God, or at least the way of grace.
In the middle are the boys, with the story being told from the point-of-view of Jack, the oldest. Vignettes from the life of this family spill onto the screen like old snapshots, painting painfully accurate portraits of pre-adolescent angst and parental ham-fistedness. It’s to Malick’s great credit that I found myself identifying equally with Jack and the Father (I have three children of my own). So close are Malick’s observations that I spent a good deal of the movie wiping away tears, connecting this fiction with my own experiences.
We see young Jack, as he teeters over the line from childhood innocence to the world of adult awareness, where those early recognitions of parental imperfection are often met with harsh judgments and resentment. But Malick wisely avoids the trap of making the Father a monster. Instead, he is a flawed creature, equally capable of moments of great tenderness and monstrous cruelty, motivated by his personal frustrations and a fear of what might befall his children. Pitt plays this middle ground wonderfully, coming at his family from a place of good intentions gone awry as he erupts into fits of anger at the transgression of his rules. He is a man of his time, trained for one thing – to provide for his family materially. To nurture or even encourage an emotional intimacy with his sons seems to be equal parts impossible and distasteful to him.
And so the rhythm of this middle section of the movie is the daily life of a middle class American family, punctuated by the milestones that we can all recognize: school crushes, fighting and playing in the neighborhood, pulling weeds, climbing trees, and getting into trouble for seemingly random things. It’s a passage of love, hurt, laughing, and crying – and through it all, we hear the voices of Jack, the Mother, and the Father as they struggle to makes sense of this life, and these key moments that can’t be shaken.
Speaking of acting, praise must be given to Hunter McCracken (young Jack) and Laramie Eppler (middle child R.L.), non-professional actors who do a splendid job of inhabiting the boys and playing many key childhood moments with truth and grace.
Finally, after too short a visit with the O’Briens, we are brought back to the present. And it’s after Jack has ruminated on these moments – in the context of all that has gone on before them in the grand scheme of time – that he is able to move on.
Malick concludes this God-soaked film with a passage that I won’t spoil here. All I’ll say is that The Tree of Life is truly the most Malick of all Malick’s movies. The girl at the ticket booth was correct, and I can’t remember being more moved by a film than I was by this beautiful story.
I wish I could see it again, to better organize my thoughts, but I’m back in Louisville where this film won’t soon come, so I’ll have to make do with this.