The movie as a “major cultural event” has come to mean a shoot-’em-up, blow-’em-up, Johnny Depp-on-the-gangplank, grown-men-being-bad-boys studio release that makes hundreds of millions of dollars while seeming to have come out of a gigantic pasta machine on a Hollywood back lot. There, the same doughy mass is processed into a predetermined variety of shapes, some in 3-D. The producers’ intent is to be as vulgar, violent and sexually suggestive as possible without being unfamiliar, because unfamiliarity would be strange and discomfiting and might engender thought. That would certainly be offensive.
In the context of such al dente American movies, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is gleefully belligerent, an act of rank insubordination in the heart of the studios (in this case Fox), an offensive offense, if you will, and an unqualified event. Why? For one thing, when you are a film director who has released only five features over four decades and each has been declared in credible quarters to be a masterpiece, your movies become events, at least outside the confines of the mall. It doesn’t hurt the “brand,” so to speak, that you have lived the life of a relative recluse in a red-carpeted world. Of course, you have also set yourself in a spotlight in which the most accomplished film might wither.
So let it be said right off that “The Tree of Life” is not an unqualified success. It doesn’t all work; its reach exceeds its grasp; it has moments of ethereal beauty and dinosaurs (more about that in a moment). “Tree” is a gnarly outgrowth. But in a culture where romantic love is the dramatic engine behind 90 percent of what passes for entertainment, “Tree,” in its attempt to articulate the very meaning of life, arrives at the conclusion that it is love. This has been said before, but not like this.
What distinguishes Malick among his filmmaking contemporaries has been a refusal, or inability, to merely tell stories on film. The film itself is part of the message. That may sound obscure, but it is not. Cinema, still anchored in large part to the 19th-century stage, possesses capabilities that are seldom explored, much less exploited.
It seems simple, but Malick makes the elements of his movies interdependent. The music is inseparable from the visuals; the juxtaposition of scenes is not accidental; the acting is both representational and metaphorical. In “Badlands,” Malick’s feature debut (1973), the serial killer inspired by Charles Starkweather, played by Martin Sheen, was not just a psychopath. He was a psychopath living out a movie he was seeing in his head, one inspired by other movies that he could not differentiate from real life. He was a movie creature and at the same time embodied a critique of the movies. “Days of Heaven,” Malick’s much-celebrated second release (1978), was lauded for its cinematography. But at its heart—the aim of all that imagery—was the place of its characters in the universe, “human lives touched and passed over by the divine,” as the film critic Dave Kehr wrote. Later “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World” would further articulate Malick’s view of the hand of God, with writing done in 35mm.
That “The Tree of Life” stars and was co-produced by Brad Pitt is not incidental. It is probably a major reason why the film was made by an entity as omnipotent as Fox, which can hardly have an interest in furthering a perspective on the universe as provocative as this film’s, or one that could be such an affront to its core audience, or so vaguely hubristic. The seed of creation is represented by Malick through the mysterious, morphing shape of light that opens the movie. The image seems to want to be something identifiable, but the viewer cannot discern what. Oh heck: Let light be light. That visual talisman recurs throughout the film, when the film wants to regroup. The audience will welcome the respite, having plenty else to shape into sense.
Pitt plays the patriarch of the film’s very nuclear family: Dad, Mom and three sons living in Waco, Tex., in the 1950s, an almost Dark Ages clan, if one cares to view the 1960s as the Enlightenment. Dad harbors an artistic streak; he is an accomplished keyboardist, whose creativity has been suffocated by crushing conformity. The result is a man both brutal and boorish. He teaches his three sons to fight, to grasp, to see church as a network of nascent business relationships rather than as a place of worship and to see all human endeavor as cutthroat and craven. He feigns sophistication but is basically a rube, and his transparent lack of honesty about himself engenders contempt in his sons, one of whom, we learn at the beginning of the film, is dead.
A telegram arrives. Mom (the remarkable newcomer Jessica Chastain) is seized by a paroxysm of grief. We are never told the details, but the second oldest is gone, presumably in Vietnam (the film is set in the 1950s or early 1960s amid Ford Fairlanes and men wearing hats). That titanic Irish-woman Fiona Shaw arrives to offer weak words of consolation (she plays Grandma, apparently, although her identity is never explained and one suspects the bulk of the actress’s performance lies on the cutting-room floor). Shaw’s appearance telegraphs that there is no consolation to be offered at the death of a child and that the sacrifice made by Mom is almost beyond comprehension. “I give you my son,” Mom says at film’s end, linking her with another sacrificing mother of our acquaintance and making herself archetypal.
The film then launches into a tightrope-walking survey of creation, courtesy of Malick, his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and, if one is to believe the press materials, a minimum of computer-generated matter. The result is a kind of unified field theory of nature photography. The glorious images that ensue, from the cosmological to the microscopic, are awe-inspiring but also part of a kinship, the pulsating matter on a slide under 100-times magnification being virtually indistinguishable from the seemingly egg-yolk-splattered palpitations of some far-off galaxy. This portrait of universal existence, which ranges from the urban to the arctic and includes those unfortunate dinosaurs (lose them, is my advice), reduces human grief to something small and banal. But only if one dismisses the love at its core, which elevates human life over everything else.
For all the seeming obscurity of Malick’s montages, “Tree” imparts an elementary lesson. As Mom explains in the opening sequence, her mother always told her that life is all about choosing between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Nature, she says, “only wants to please itself,” adding that “it finds a way to be unhappy,” as Lubezki’s traveling camera settles on a rope hanging from a tree limb. This is an innocent enough image (children are known to play on ropes hanging from tree limbs)—unless, of course, one is already thinking about the ways human beings solve their unhappiness in a world full of the wonders “Tree of Life” is busy celebrating. As Malick moments go, it is exemplary as well as eloquent, as long as we listen.
It is unfortunate that “The Tree of Life” debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where jet-lagged American critics were allowed the first crack at Malick’s quasi-masterpiece. This is not a movie one wants to see without one’s faculties at full attention. The cranky outbursts emanating from France were unfortunate, if understandable. “The Tree of Life,” which eventually won top prize at Cannes, is meant to require work. One cannot watch it half-heartedly. Its angles are intentionally awkward, with so much existing outside the frame that the viewer cranes to catch it all. This is especially the case when the film shifts its focus to Sean Penn, who plays the eldest son at a later date, still mourning his brother and now an executive at an office park of tortured girders and glass surfaces that offer reflections from which no one benefits. That may sound corny, but it’s precisely how the scene comes across on screen. Penn probably just wanted to be in the film, and if it helped Malick get the movie made and released, more power to him. No films like this are being made in America, not on this scale.
One finds echoes in “The Tree of Life” of Kelly Reichardt’s movies (“River of Grass,” “Meek’s Cutoff”), with their disorienting framing and disquieting counterpoint of sight and sound. The work of the photographer Edward Weston is recalled in Malick’s insistence on finding ways of looking that make the banal and familiar into something else. Pulsating sea life. Exploding Icelandic landscapes. A newborn infant. A leaf blown across a walkway. Mom in a glass coffin, à la “Sleeping Beauty,” or floating incongruously around a tree in a piney Texas wood.
Does it make sense? Does life? Art is aspiration, and art is love. That is all you know from Malick, and all you need to know.