The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick’s Cosmic Cinema

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The Tree of Life

The mob scene of a couple thousand critics pushing and shoving, pleading and shouting, to get in; the hushed anticipation as the film began; and at the end, the belligerent booing answered by defiant applause. What stoked the ruckus? Not a Brad Pitt movie, though the dreamboat star has a central role, but a Terrence Malick film. And who, ask the children raised on Spielberg and Michael Bay, is Terrence Malick?

This morning’s world premiere of Malick’s The Tree of Life — hands down the most avidly anticipated film at Cannes 2011 — had all the angry urgency of legendary Festival screenings from the 1970s. Mary Corliss recalls the congestion at the old Palais at the first showing, in 1979, of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: the crowd was so tightly packed that it lifted her when it surged forward. As she was swept from the lobby into the auditorium, Mary’s feet literally did not touch the ground.

That was a time (to quote the title of Dave Kehr’s new collection of his reviews from the period) when movies mattered — when filmmakers strove to expand the cinematic vocabulary instead of simply parroting it, and took adventurous audiences along for the exhilarating ride. Most of the acclaimed auteurs were European; back then foreign movies mattered too, crucially. But Malick — a Waco, Texas, kid who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, and in 1969 translated Martin Heidegger’s writings as The Essence of Reasons — was up there with Coppola and Robert Altman on the list of prime questers in American film.

His first feature, Badlands, which premiered at the 1973 New York Film Festival, and Days of Heaven five years later were a gifted naturalist’s portraits of rural life streaked with violence and deceit. Then Malick moved to Paris and into a prolonged, profound seclusion. The movie all those critics were fighting to get into this morning is just his third film in the past 33 years. It’s been at least that long since Malick gave an interview. He did not attend the Tree of Life press conference this morning, leaving the crowd management to the genial Pitt.)

The first thing to say about The Tree of Life is that… well, the first thing is that it’s a heightened, almost hallucinatory sensual experience, and essential viewing for serious moviegoers (and you know who you are). But the main thing to say is that Malick has captured the feeling of texture of his early films and those other ’70s movies that mattered. It proceeds through its microscopic narrative, and its macro-view of the cosmos, as if three decades of artistic retrenchment in American moviemaking had not happened. For Malick the movie screen is a canvas for his visions, and his job is not to anticipate what audiences will love but to offer his uncompromised take and see if they’ll take it.

Not everyone at the Cannes screening was in a taking mood. The early reviews from here vary from quiet admiration (Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter) to scathing dismissal (J. Hoberman in The Village Voice). Most concentrate on The Tree of Life‘s macro side, on Malick’s reach for the stars. Few critics, though, have addressed  the film’s plainly autobiographical central section, which is most of the movie. That’s what will be emphasized here.

In its acute stethoscoping of nature, of light slowly moving across a forest or a front lawn, and in its reliance on gesture over dialogue, The Tree of Life a near-sibling to Badlands and Days of Heaven. The film’s core 90 minutes, which detail a dozen baby-boomer years in the life of a small-town Texas family — the stern Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), his sweet wife (Jessica Chastain) and their young sons Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) — could pass as a modern indie film, though one astonishingly attentive to behavioral detail and the natural world that surrounds and nourishes the boys and their beloved mom.

This bucolic narrative is a flashback from the first scene, set in the ’60s, in which Mrs. O’Brien gets news that her second son, R.L., has died; and that scene gives way to present-day Houston, where middle-age Jack (Sean Penn), in a phone conversation with his father, is still mourning the loss of his brother. Having begun with a death, the film ends with a resurrection, as loved and lost ones are reunited.

But before he settles down in the 1950s, Malick takes viewers on a mostly abstract sound-and-light show that gloriously summarizes the history of the cosmos in 17 minutes. Stars collide, organisms split and breed, anemones and eels swim through the sea, then sharks and, on the beach by the sea, a few dinosaurs. Though the sequence lacks cavemen tossing bones, it’s reminiscent of the more extravagant elements from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001‘s special effects, had an artful hand here.) But Malick is even ballsier, since this sequence is not the powerful if perplexing culmination of a science-fiction storyline but a spectacular planetarium art film inserted toward the beginning of a miniature domestic tale. It’s the director’s grand f-you message to the timidity of modern moviemakers.

In this cosmos section, a few images may connect with the main story. A desert rock formation suggests Chastain’s distinctive silhouette. One dinosaur sees another of its species lying on the beach and places its foot on the smaller creature’s head, in a gesture of dominance that Mr. O’Brien might have applied to one of his recalcitrant sons. (His wife represents nature’s rapture; he’s the carnivorous raptor.) But Malick’s larger point is that, as 19th-century scientists put it, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” — that the growth of an individual organism (the human fetus in its mother’s womb, for examples) mimics the history of evolution; billions of years compressed into nine months.

Even more succinctly — and now with humans, so the viewer’s attitude can shift from awe (or bafflement) to empathy — the movie synopsizes the first 10 years of the O’Brien family: the birth of Jack and, a year or so later, of his next brother, and then of R.L. We understand the film’s title when Mr. O’Brien plants a sapling in the front yard and tells the pre-school Jack, “You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.” Dad loves his kids, and doesn’t use physical violence, but he’s inept at conveying any tone except the rigidity of a drill sergeant or office manager. He insists on being called Sir, not Dad; he tries to prepare the boys for the world’s belligerence by ordering them to “Hit me!”; and one evening at dinner he asks one of his sons, “For the next half-hour, will you not speak unless you have something important to say?” The boy’s about 10; and when he does shyly speak up, there’s hell to pay.

Giving a sensitive performance in the role of an insensitive man, Pitt shows that Mr. O’Brien, like many a male, is just not good at parenting. His severity may be a function of the disappointments he endured in his career. He wanted to be a professional musician; the Army intervened. He fancies himself an inventor, and has applied for many patents, but is stuck in a job he’d loved to break out of, if only he’s not fired from it. He doesn’t seem to notice the unapproving glances the other townsmen shoot his way. In a telling scene with his family at a diner, he first gives the waitress a warning, then kisses her hand, then plays at withholding her tip. He must think these games are somehow ingratiating; but they show why he hasn’t succeeded in business, or with his kids. In Willy Loman’s phrase, he’s “not well-liked.”

The film counterposes the sharply drawn Mr. O’Brien with a shadowy sketch of his wife. With neither a name nor more than a few lines of dialogue, she’s a woodland sprite consigned to the kitchen. Suffering her husband’s rebukes, and declining to defy him when he’s harsh with the kids, she comes alive only when he leaves on a long business trip. Then she’s unleashed, a giddy older sister to her sons, whirling in the yard and feigning fright when one boy puts a lizard in the bathtub.

Otherwise, the character is generic, and as translucent as Chastain’s pale skin. The mother exists as the impossible ideal for young Jack to cherish, while he forges the will to fight his father and worries that he will turn into the old man. As it happens, Mr. O’Brien shares this apprehension. But he will have to wait for the film’s last few minutes, in a dreamland on excellent beach property, to be absolved and embraced.

Though The Tree of Life identifies all these conflicting vectors, which should ring achingly true to anyone raised in a large family around the American mid-century, it doesn’t spell them out. Malick is as tactful about these people as he is critical of some of them, and connected to all. Affection or animosity is revealed in a glance, a tilt of the restless camera, a cut from a parental argument in the house to the apprehensive kids outside. You can see the dinner-table tension in every lad’s face, dreading an explosion. In large part that’s due to the natural, persuasive performances Malick has drawn from his kids — they somehow intuit how boys behaved a half-century ago. McCracken is a wonderful worrier, and Eppler, the spitting image of a young Brad Pitt, radiates the easy appeal of the child who may not even realize that he’s the one who is loved best.

Not all of the movie’s secrets can be revealed at one screening (I saw it twice), and not all its revelations embraced. But, like the most ambitious cinema of the ’70s, the film needs its audience to participate fully, to pore over the images as closely as Terry Malick the philosophy student did over Heidegger. As Malick sees it, the moviegoer is not an infant; the director is not a babysitter. It’s fine if you don’t get all of The Tree of Life. But try to get with it.

If you do, you may be lifted into the movie’s cosmos, micro- or macro-. There will be times when the great spirit moves you, and your feet won’t touch the ground.