June 25, 2011

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's latest, The Tree of Life, is like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wonder Years on acid. I left the theater with mixed emotions. It was a haunting movie with the kind of breathtaking visual lyricism you expect from a Malick film. He is known for his visual patchworks like Days of Heaven (1978), for which cinematographer Nestor Almendros won an Oscar. But Days of Heaven had problems. Malick emphasized the imagery over the story, which was a love triangle set in the turn-of-the-century wheatfields of Texas. The film was shot in 1976 in Alberta, Canada, and when the actors (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, and Linda Manz) finally saw the movie in 1978, they were shocked at how unrecognizable it seemed. Malick had cut whole scenes of dialogue and what was left was a visual pastiche, beautiful, yes, but also vacant, almost muted. Pauline Kael quipped that it was "an empty Christmas tree" on which "you can hang all your dumb metaphors."  More importantly, Kael observed that "what is unspoken in this picture weighs heavily upon us, but we're not quite sure what it is." Most of the other New York and California critics were more adoring of the movie. However, Malick disappeared from movie-making for twenty years, returning to direct a remake of The Thin Red Line, released in 1998, and then the Christopher Columbus opus, The New World, released in 2005.

I found moments of The Tree of Life completely in sync with Pauline Kael's observations of Days of Heaven. On the other hand, having seen Days of Heaven several times, I was able to compare the two. Malick latched onto a story somewhat more dexterously in The Tree of Life than he did in Days of Heaven. He's always been something of a poetic director, and I think you can only appreciate the kind of image-saturated heaviness he does on a large screen. Watching this or Days of Heaven on your TV will probably kill the movie experience altogether. He's also got a need to be pretentiously philosophical, and show-offy, the way Kubrick was in 2001. The only difference is that Malick's pretentiousness is more out of reverence for the beauty of nature (or perhaps reverence for his appreciation of the beauty of nature) and in 2001 Kubrick seemed to be daring us to be bored/in awe of his technical achievements. He was turning film into opera and demanding that we applaud with reverential deference. Malick might be doing the same thing with nature. Sometimes you think you're watching a National Geographic documentary sans narrator.

But then, about thirty or forty minutes into the movie, Malick calmed down with all the floaty, emotionally manipulative nature imagery (it's beautiful, yes, but it does go on and on) and the visually maneuvered philosophical pontificating about the beginning of the universe and the dawn of life. He zooms in on this middle class, 1950's Texas family headed by the stern, hard-ass dad played by Brad Pitt. He's a proud, stiff-upper-lipped father of three boys. Their mother (played by Jessica Chastain) is all elegance and passivity. She's beautiful and mysterious and genuinely loving, but her spirit is mastered by her rigid husband. He's not without love or kindness, but he seems so afraid of losing his family that he resorts to being a control freak to avoid loss. And so, he alienates them with his domineering temperament. It made you understand all fathers in a fresh way: all at once trying to be brave and tough, tender and buoyant, never really sure of themselves. The boys are trying to figure things out themselves, and the oldest one (Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult) experiences a loss of innocence that comes with growing up. He learns what death is, he learns the fluid give-and-take of faith when he's told about God and then experiences tragedy for the first time.

Malick can't resist himself though, and he goes back to being cuckoo at the end. By then, though, we're more willing to accept his directorial idiosyncrasies. Besides that, I appreciated the movie's attempt to tell the story visually, relying less on dialogue. And while this technique brings the movie into sometimes new and strange ground, it also made The Tree of Life refreshingly lyrical and offbeat. Sean Penn's presence is virtually a cameo as the oldest son, grown up, trying to make sense of life in the New York business world. He's mourning the loss of his youth, and there's also a heartbreaking story about one of his brothers.

Maybe it's triter than we think. Perhaps The Tree of Life might just be a gag on the audience, trying to whip us up into an ecstatic frenzy. I can hear the pretentious film-goers praising the movie's more esoteric moments as something only the enlightened could understand. I don't think even the director knew what was going on in some of those parts. This would have probably made more sense during the era of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. It's a good film and a bad film, moment-by-moment.

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