Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The Tree of Life
The winner of this year’s main prize at Cannes and the subject of millions of pixels’ worth of online debate, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature as writer/director over the last 38 years is to cinephiles what Halley’s Comet is to astronomers: an eagerly anticipated and rarely seen phenomenon. But I’ve also been talking to a lot of friends who had planned to give The Tree of Life a pass, having heard it was a pretentious or impenetrable snoozefest.
If you’ve seen and disliked any of Malick’s other movies (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World), you won’t like this one either. Like most great filmmakers, Malick has created a distinctive cinematic language, and in The Tree of Life he achieves perhaps its purest expression yet. But everyone who loves movies and doesn’t hate Malick should catch this one—preferably while it’s still in theaters, since this is a film that should be seen on as big a screen as possible.
The quote from Job that opens The Tree of Life sets up the one-sided conversation Jack (an amazingly expressive Hunter McCracken as a young man and a hollowed-out Sean Penn as an adult) has with God throughout the film. The childhood that left him so haunted unfolds in a cascade of scenes, most of which capture moments so universally human you almost feel as if you’d experienced them yourself. Jack and his brothers run through a carless street at the end of a long summer day; Jack’s family sits uneasily around the dinner table, trying not to set off their seething father; Jack’s mother picks up one of her three boys and spins him joyfully around their front yard. These moments feel absorbing and distancing at the same time, in part because of the wide angle lens that often pushes right up to the actors’ faces, pulling us into their internal worlds while still showing a wide swath of the world they inhabit, a context Malick never lets us forget.
Jack’s life is full of joy and family love, especially from and for his idealized mother, an eternally nurturing young beauty played by Jessica Chastain, who’s poised to become the next big thing in movies. At the same time, he’s learning about suffering and injustice, most persistently through his father's unpredictable bouts of violence and most painfully through the death of his brother, which happens when Jack is a young man but opens the time-skipping story.
Nonlinear and mostly nonverbal, Malick’s narrative favors feeling over facts, cutting to the core of a scene and leaving us to guess what came before and what follows. As Adrian Martin observes, “It is hard to find the decisive, dramatic moment when things happen in Malick’s films ... Malick likes to skip the middle of any story, any action, any state of mind or mood.”
Words are used only sparingly to fill in the gaps, the film’s rich soundtrack supplied almost entirely by Alexandre Desplat’s majestic score and by an army of sound designers, 34 of whom are listed on IMDB. The urgently whispered soundtrack, another Malick signature, inserts snippets of voiceover from Jack and his mother at intervals, but these often have nothing to do with the action we’ve seen, instead surfacing thoughts they would never have voiced in life. The mother often offers her children words to live by, while the son sticks to existential issues, lobbing prayers or questions (“Why should I be good if you aren’t?”) at a silent God.
This is, of course, the polar opposite of Hollywood’s standard expository narrative hand-holding, and it can make The Tree of Life feel opaque at times. But if you go with the flow (and I mean that literally: The handheld camera is always on the move, creating a sense of the relentless flow of time and energy), you’ll leave with a surprisingly detailed and coherent portrait of the O’Brien family. We may not know their last name (I looked it up online), but their emotional landscape becomes as familiar as their yard and neighborhood, where almost all the action takes place.
We also get a strong feel for what Martin calls “[the] unbridgeable distance from God and the cosmic realm, the vacuum of divine silence that fills the abyss of this gulf. All of Malick’s films resound across this distance and silence.”
And, as always in Malick's movies, we get a sweeping sense of the natural world that surrounds the characters, oblivious to and often subsuming their concerns. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography (he also shot The New World) and Malick’s eye for the unexpected combine to capture powerful images like light dancing on a bedroom wall at night, a giant swarm of birds seen from afar at golden hour as they create swirling patterns in the sky, or a stand of tall trees shot from the ground with a wide-angle lens that makes them appear to huddle together. (Shooting up at trees is to Malick what shooting up at people as they gawp at the sky is to Spielberg.)
Malick always salts in shots of that sort, but this is the first of his films to include a lengthy highlights reel of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. (The army of visual effects artists he employed is even bigger than the sound team.) It’s the ultimate god’s-eye view, a perspective Malick brings to all his films. As Matt Zoller Seitz puts it: “Ninety-nine out of a hundred Hollywood movies are dedicated to the proposition that your story is important—and by ‘you,’ I mean the character that you are associating with, that is your surrogate. Terrence Malick stands completely in opposition to that. All of his films, to some degree, reinforce the idea that no, it’s not about you. You may think that it is, but it’s not. And this life that you’re living is just one infinitesimal piece of the cosmos.”
But please don’t let me give you the idea that The Tree of Life is coldly analytical or purely intellectual. As much as any movie I’ve seen this year, it’s suffused with reverence and regret, love and sorrow, and a Zen appreciation of the beauty of each passing moment.
Written for TimeOFF