The Tree of Life is either written and directed by Terrence Malick or a skilled parodist. It features everything we’ve come to associate with the reclusive filmmaker — hushed, elliptical voiceovers; magic hour lighting; nature footage imbued with mysticism — turned up to 11. Last week the film won the coveted Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. So it must be amazing, right?
Yes and no. One of the sequences that seems to be dividing critics goes from the birth of stars to the creation of single-celled organisms up through dinosaurs set to transcendent opera music. The best effects are reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (that film’s effect supervisor, Douglas Trumbull is credited as an Effects Supervisor for Tree of Life) and the worst are plainly digital, lacking the texture and play of light that Malick and his d.p., Emmanuel Lubezki, have otherwise crafted. But I don’t fall on the thumbs-down side regarding this sequence because of imperfect CGI. I fail it for how uncreatively it remakes the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, released in 1940, three years before Malick was even born. It is depressing to think that cinema has traveled only inches since that time. This sequence is reportedly an outgrowth of an aborted project from the 1970’s called Q as well as related to an IMAX special on the origin of life, so perhaps it’s no accident that it feels shoehorned into the rest of the film.
But what about the rest of the film, which is not about the origin of life, but about a family who shares an era and hometown with Malick himself? Malick is famously reclusive, so I’m not going to assume the film is autobiographical. What I can say is that the little moments that the film flits between seem too specific to be entirely invented. Hunter McCracken plays Young Jack, the oldest of three brothers, and his relationship with his mother (Jessica Chastain), father (Brad Pitt) and middle brother (Laramie Eppler?) form the core of the film. The way the film is edited suggests that much of it takes place in the head of the adult Jack (Sean Penn), who is perhaps an architect, and who is reflecting back on his childhood, perhaps after a failed marriage.
One of his brothers died at the age of 19. We never find out which one, or how. I guess the film is not about that. This being a Malick film, summarizing is dangerous and difficult. Here’s where I stand on his previous “masterpieces”: I only enjoyed and felt I got something out of The Thin Red Line upon second viewing. Badlands and The New World (Original Theatrical Cut) I liked right away. I have not seen Days of Heaven.
I wish I had waited for video to see The Tree of Life (notwithstanding the excellent photography and sound design) because I’d want to be able to pause and rewind and try to understand the image system Malick and his team have created. The tree in the yard seems to be freighted with symbolism, as do shots of the sun, birds, and diaphanous white linens. But, as with the opaque imagery of modernist poets like Wallace Stevens, even with time and diligence I might never figure out what exactly they are meant to communicate.
What’s more, there are images that are clearly meant to be metaphors — the mother in a glass coffin in the woods, like Snow White; birth visualized as a child swimming up through an underwater door; Sean Penn as Jack walking through a doorframe in the desert; the final aria of characters uniting on a beach at sunset. Somehow, this visual poetry clashes with the usual visual poetry Malick creates from real nature footage and pseudo-documentary observational camerawork. This, plus the spiritual overtones that re-tread the messages in his previous films but with less deftness, is what lead me to feel like the film sometimes verges on parody.
The film is at its best when the characters are left to their own devices. Much has been made of the stern father, played with nuance by Brad Pitt. You get a great sense of the man, with all his aspirations and frustrations. But to what end? We do not see how the death of one of his sons affects his life, nor especially how he has affected Jack’s life. Sadly, Jessica Chastain’s mother character is not allowed to develop as much as Pitt’s father. I think what will stick with me is Jack shooting his brother’s finger with a b.b. gun; the Oedipal scene where he has a chance to kill his father by kicking out a car jack; and the scenes of the cruel things young boys do when they gang up, like strap frogs to rockets.
The film begins with a Biblical quote from Job. I kept watching it with the idea it was wrestling with the problem of evil — how can bad things happen to good people? If you believe in a benign God, this is probably the most challenging question to your faith. Malick’s The Tree of Life does not answer the question, even if you read the repeated image of a flame-like light as a representation of a higher, eternal power. Instead, the film seems, as I read it, to fall back on the idea of a heaven-like afterlife, where the dead will reunite. It may be what Malick believes, spiritually, but it just doesn’t work, narratively. There’s no set-up so it can’t pay off. I think Federico Fellini’s autobiographical 8 1/2 works so well for me while this movie falls flat because, even as wacky as Fellini gets, he still presents a coherent vision of the world. Or perhaps I just missed it with The Tree of Life. Perhaps I’ll come to love it upon second viewing. But right now I can only recommend the film to true Malick fans… and Cannes Film Festival judges.