May 27, 2011

“THE TREE OF LIFE” – God, Man & Terrence Malick

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Worth A Ticket; An often stupendous achievement that courts ridicule–and sometimes earns it.
Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE is at once the filmmaker’s most emotionally grounded and dizzyingly ambitious film, his most relatable and esoteric piece of work.  In a sense it’s the definitive Malick film, the one that explores his chosen themes to their seeming extremes, extending both before and after the existence of life itself.  For anyone remotely interested in film as an art form it’s essential, although that doesn’t mean it’s going to please general audiences.  (Good luck to Fox Searchlight:  the per-theatre numbers this weekend in its 4-house run should be sensational–extra midnight shows had to be added on opening night–but it’s hard to imagine wide audiences flocking to it.)

Malick has a virtually unique position in contemporary American film as the only creator of essentially non-narrative cinema who can get major studios to distribute (and to an extent finance) his work.  This despite the fact that he’s far from a safe commercial bet:  he took a 20-year hiatus between his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, and his current crop that began with The Thin Red Line in 1998 and continued with The New World 7 years later (his recent prolific streak continues, as he’s already shot his next film for release whenever he’s done with it).  Add the fact that none of his work has been very financially successful–Thin Red Line, his most expensive project, managed $36M domestically, and that was triple the business that New World did–and he takes years to obsessively re-edit and score his films.  (Tree of Life was originally supposed to premiere at Cannes in 2010, and didn’t make it there until this past month, where it promptly won the Festival’s Grand Prize.)  All these idiosyncracies, combined with the willingness of big stars to appear in his films and his own relusiveness, have given him a sort of brand identity as the industry’s official auteur.  
In Tree of Life, he makes full use of his artistic freedom.  His central philosophical concern, as it’s been since his career began, is the interplay of man and the universe, which in this film is presented in an overtly religious sense, starting with quotations from the Book of Job (later expanded upon in an extended sermon sequence).  The puny meaninglessness of human actions as compared to the heedless, unknowable–literally inhuman–motives of God is the position Malick wants us to ponder.  As Malick presents it, humanity divides into those who try to control the universe around them and are doomed to fail (he calls this “nature”), and those who accept the world as it is and retain a spiritual purity (“grace”). 
Malick gives us this schism in two ways.  He stops the continuity of the film for about 20 minutes in its first hour to present us with a history of the world from the formation of the planet itself, to the existence of microscopic life, to the appearance of dinosaurs and ultimately man, in imagery that in its abstraction recalls some of the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” section of Kubrick’s 2001.  The intent seems to give us a sense of scale, an understanding of how unimportant and pointless a person must be who thinks they can control any aspect of life.
Once that’s done, though, the story is told in what is, for Malick, a relatively straightforward accont of the O’Brien family, living in Texas in the 1950s.  (Which is where and when Malick actually grew up.)  They are a father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain) and 3 sons (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan), and they personify the film’s theme.  Pitt’s character is an ex-soldier who plays classical music and works at a factory while failing to sell his inventions; he tries to control his children, his garden, his professional life, and he becomes increasingly bitter as his attempts fail.  Chastain is a purer spirit, who raises the boys with love and accepts what comes her way.  The children, especially McCracken as the oldest son Jack (played briefly by Sean Penn in modern-day sequences that bracket the film), are torn by the knowledge that there is no divine justice, no logic to good and bad events.  Jack struggles with the meaning of evil in a world where consequences are random and, as with Job, bad things can happen to anyone.
The best portions of Tree of Life are where Malick puts his metaphysical ideas to one side and depicts the family’s daily life.  There’s an amazing section where we follow Jack’s childhood as a record of his sensual intake of the sights and sounds around him; I don’t know that any filmmaker has ever captured the way children absorb the world better than Malick does here.  The film, rhapsodically photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, practically explodes with movement, light and color, and Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score accompanies the images gorgeously.  The quotidian moments of meals, bedtime stories, walks in the street, playing with toys are captured with utter immediacy and heightened reality.
But Malick is Malick, and ultimately he doesn’t want to immerse us in the drama of this family as such.  Malick is famously a foe of dialogue in film, and so there is endless, pretentiously whispered narration (much of it addressed to God) while people stare at each other meaningfully or we watch shots of rooms and foliage; it recalls some of Godard’s later, less accessible work.  Although Pitt gets a relatively well-rounded character, Chastain is left to play a holy cipher, at best a reboot of the mother in The Great Santini (no knock on the actress, who is beautifully expressive).  Even though Jack is our protagonist, his psychology is limited to reacting to the actions around him and worrying over the nature vs grace heavyweight bout.  Malick doesn’t have a cheery bone in his body, and in the 137 minutes of Tree of Life he doesn’t take enough pity on us to allow a single laugh or even a smile.  Sometimes even the physical perfection of his filmmaking is wearying; with its fanatically composed shots and the relatively swift editing, there are moments when the whole movie feels like the longest trailer of all time for an even bigger film that’s still to come.  And while the film’s final minutes will no doubt move some audiences deeply, to me its cosmic pretentions were incomprehensible and not a little hackneyed and simple-minded. 
There is literally no one else in America making movies like Terrence Malick, and Tree of Life, for all its very real imperfections, is and will stand as one of the major films of the year.  In an era where movies just want to collect their money and start scheduling sequels, it’s a picture that has the entire meaning of life on its mind.  Even if you don’t think you’ll love it, don’t miss it.
(THE TREE OF LIFE – Fox Searchlight – 137 minutes – PG 13 – Director/Script:  Terrence Malick – Cast:  Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn – Limited Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."