Friday, June 10, 2011


The specific subject of Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life is a mid-century, middle-class, middle-American family—dysfunction & tragedy played out in Norman Rockwell light. Malick isn’t big on specificity, though, & it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that what he’s really taking on with this movie is no less than the Meaning of Life, the inscrutable Fruit & Root of the title Tree.

Malick’s story concerns the O’Briens, of Boomer-era Waco, Texas: Dad (Brad Pitt), who gave up his dream to be a classical pianist for a career as an industrial engineer, the radiant & saintly Mom (Jessica Chastain), and three boys. The eldest of these, Jack (played by Sean Penn as an adult & by the terrific Hunter McCracken as a preteen), is our point of view for most of the film.

It’s an iconic American motif; what makes The Tree of Life different from innumerable other treatments is, first of all, Malick’s narrative style. The story is given to us in elliptical fragments, mostly brief, often enigmatic, seemingly meant to suggest snatches of memory. In its broader organization, it’s also suggestive of a piece of symphonic music, with movements: a light & joyous passage devoted to the mother, a brooding one for the father, a turbulent one for the boy’s sexual awakening, and so forth (the powerful score is by Alexander Desplat).

Past and present, the dramatic & the trivial, are freely mixed with scenes of the characters wandering in expressionistic landscapes. It’s disorienting at first, and some of the questions that arise about exactly what’s happened to the family remain ambiguous. But the wisps & glimpses of story accrue emotional force, & most of what’s onscreen is superbly done—it includes, among other merits, one of Brad Pitt’s best performances, a turn of almost Brando-like vibrancy. Still, what we aren’t shown can be exasperating.

Secondly, The Tree of Life is remarkable for Malick’s ambitiousness of scope: In addition to emotional conflicts—career and personal disappointments turn Dad from a stern & hard-assed but by no means unloving father to a repressive tyrant—& coming-of-age drama, the family is also visited by heartbreak & loss. They cry out to the Almighty, as people do in such times, with the Eternal Questions: “Who are You? What are we to You?” And Malick takes his unironic best shot at giving them, & us, an answer, in visual terms.

The oddest branch on The Tree of Life is a lengthy, epic special-effects sequence depicting the formation of the Cosmos, and the development of life on Earth, from slimy blobs & worms to plesiosaurs & dinosaurs. It’s a majestic free-standing episode, inevitably reminiscent, in atmosphere, of Kubrick’s 2001 (Kubrick crony Douglas Trumbull reportedly worked on the effects), but what, you might well ask, does this titanic spectacle have to do with the O’Briens of Waco, Texas?

The question could be answered in more than one way. It could be that Malick is saying to the bereaved questioner, in the manner of a rationalist-era Voice of God to Job: In light of this magnificent, terrible, pitiless, glorious pageant, how dare you ask for an explanation for your sufferings?

I don’t think, so, though. I think he’s trying to put personal & family travails into a cosmic context—to suggest that our lives are every bit as important, in the grand scheme of things, as exploding suns & volcanoes & primordial monsters. The film seems in some sense theistic in outlook, though not simplemindedly so, & the point seems to be that human life & our interpersonal connections do have metaphysical or transcendental significance, even if we can’t quite understand it.

Of course, Malick’s depiction of The Grand Scheme of Things is just that—a depiction. Your own sensibility will have a lot to do with whether it repels you or thrills you, whether it seems pretentious & presumptuous or an audacious & visionary use of the medium.

For me, it was the latter. Malick, now 67, has made only five features as a director. His marvelous debut, 1973’s Badlands, holds up as a classic; I’ve found most of his subsequent work interesting but diffuse. But The Tree of Life, for all its loose ends & ramblings, strikes me as another that may still look like a classic four decades from now.


  1. I'm catching the 6:15 screening of this and I cannot wait. It's driving me nuts having to sit at my desk all day thinking that somewhere in town the movie is playing, people are watching it, and I am not one of them. I've seen the trailer for this close to twenty times and I have an emotional response to it everytime. If the movie is half as effective for me as the trailer I'm going to be a wreck.

  2. Yeah, I'd kinda like to see it again myself. I like your moviegoing enthusiam; if you can drop in & write a few lines on it when you get a chance; I'll be intrigued to hear what you thought...

  3. Well, I did see it Friday and I'm still trying to figure out what I think of it. There are moments in the movie that are jaw droppingly amazing, but you are right that it can be an exasperating experience. I'm not sure the Sean Penn scenes work for me, and there are times when I thought the movie was getting too repetative with it's imagery. Then again, maybe that's part of the point, right? The movie did hit me on a very personal level. Not with the relationships really, but with the thoughts and feelings of the characters. I can't wait to see it again, and I really hope I'm able to see it in a theater before it's gone.

    On that note, I have to say that it was one of the worst theater expereinces I've ever had. I'm not the biggest fan of Camelview as it is. The screening was in theater one, and it was jammed pack (mostly old people) and as soon as the beginning on the world sequences showed up they started losing their minds. People were talking, they didn't get it, they were saying out loud how terrible it was. I've never been in a movie where there was this many walk outs. I'm assuming these are people with at least a prediliction for this kind of thing, but they weren't willing to sit through 20 minutes of something a little different. And the imagery isn't really THAT crazy, is it? Do you realize that not a single person walked out of the screening of SHORTBUS when it played there? But some images of space and volcanos are too much?

    Still, I would rather them walk out that make comments throughout the entire movie. I must not be the kind of person who is going to tell someone to shut up in a theater. If the lady sitting behind didn't get me to do it, no one will.

  4. Man, what you describe is disheartening. It must be exactly what the producers & studios feared when Malick pitched this thing. I'm not saying that Malick's approach is above criticism--it's nervy & challenging to an audience, no question--but one would hope that adults could at least sit & watch it. Sorry about the lady behind you, too.

  5. Perhaps, it's a matter of context. If that same sequence was shown in an IMAX theater as a movie about the beginning of the universe I don't think people would mind. Plop the same footage into a narrative framework and it's unacceptable.

  6. No doubt that's true, & while I loved the sequence I could totally understand if somebody else found it jarring & a failed experiment. But even so, you would think it wouldn't drive them from the theatre.

  7. Wouldn't think it WOULD drive them, I mean...