This review, an unabashed placeholder, quickly & messily expressed, is based upon my first screening of the film, which took place at Chicago’s Landmark Century Centre Cinema on 3 June, at 1:00 PM (fun fact: I was the first person in all of Chicago to get my ticket torn & I shall be keeping the stub as a memento). A more complete second-viewing review will come sometime next week.
It’s a sign of how long Terrence Malick has been carrying around The Tree of Life in his head, fussing over the various elements of the narrative, finessing his concepts both visual and thematic, that the title ends up promising a movie with considerably less ambition than we ended up getting. Ever since the days when the project was still just Q, this has been known to be a film about the place of human beings in the whole flow of Earth’s history, setting the travails of a single Texas family against the scope of life itself. That movie would deserve the name The Tree of Life, and certainly that movie is part of the thing. But only a part: in fact, Malick has ended up using that already somewhat, shall we say, broad topic as a springboard for a whole second layer of movie, one that addresses the question, “Who is God, exactly, and why does he do these horrible things to us?” A question that does not personally interest me, but that doesn’t mean the asking of it is any less fascinating, particularly when its married to a film of such aesthetic sublimity that it is almost a holy thing itself; and how right it is that an American film that grapples with the essential questions about God’s identity and the function of faith in daily life should be something like a religious rite in the more secular church of the cinema?
The film hides its identity not at all, opening with a quote from the Book of Job. This is sort of the most obvious thing ever, but subtlety is not what Malick is going for, particularly not in the early going: Tree of Life is here to overwhelm, not to inveigle. And yes, Job is the touchstone for this film because it is going to be largely about the nature of suffering in a beautiful universe. The opening is – well, kind of – the film is structured in a rather more discontinuous manner than Malick’s other films ever have been, but in a nutshell, we’re first in the 1960s, in Waco, Texas, where the O’Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) have just found out that one of their sons is dead at 19 years old; then, many years later (maybe it’s meant to be now; maybe it’s meant to be the ’80s or ’90s; it really doesn’t matter, though), their eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), reflects on his past, and then back in the ’60s we watch Mrs. O’Brien in her pain, which drives her to ask in the hushed, meditative voice-over typical of Malick’s cinema, “Where were you, Lord?”
And then, is this where the film goes from a beautifully-shot, thrillingly edited study of human loss to the thing that caused one of the great visionaries of ’70s cinema to retire for 20 years to attempt to work out how he could possibly assemble it all into a movie, the end result of 32 years of thinking and pre-production and so on: for when Mrs. O’Brien asks, “Where were you, Lord?”, the film decides to answer her. Thus begins a sequence that takes us from the formation of the earth from cosmic dust, through to the first life, past dinosaurs in a river, into the 1950s, the birth of the three O’Brien children, and their childhood, finally settling down when Jack (Hunter McCracken) was 11 and the others, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) were still in the single digits.
And what I’ve taken a paragraph to describe takes tens of minutes to play out, and is already the most legendary and beloved part of Tree of Life, for the unanswerable reason that it is glorious and massive, the sort of thing that flies at you in a wall of image and music, and you must either give into and simply be dazzled over and over again or resist and be driven to distraction by the loopiness of it all – for it is, I suppose, kitschy; and it is, as the film’s detractors (who are much in the minority) have pointed out, completely indulgent (as indulgent as Waco native Malick using Waco as the symbolic representation of all places where all families live). So what? What’s the inherent sin of being indulgent, I ask? Would you rather have a film where all the personal urgency has been carefully airbrushed away by a committee of moneymen with an eye towards making the most people somewhat happy? Because I sure as fuck wouldn’t.
So, the images: in the “creation of the world” portion of the film, a nearly seamless blend of CGI used when it has to be and practical effects used as much as possible (the one seam: the dinosaurs are frankly dodgy, poorly composited with the background and with each other, and far too smooth and shiny). Douglas Trumbull, co-creator of the visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, served as consultant; it lends a nice continuity to the film, given that this sequence is the first worthy successor to the “Beyond the Infinite” material from 2001 that I have myself ever seen.
Volcanoes and mud pits and hot springs, all carefully shot by Malick – and, I presume, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but given the crazy-quilt way The Tree of Life came together, I don’t know how much of this sequence was his – to look as much like an alien landscape as he can, while the soundtrack absolutely blazes with one perfectly-chosen piece of music after another; the one that sticks in mind is Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa”, an appropriately doleful piece that undercuts the spiritual joyfulness of the material rather pointedly; I might also mention that this piece was taken from Preisner’s Requiem for My Friend, in which the “friend” was Preisner’s frequent collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski, whose work (in no small part because of Preisner’s music) is arguably the most spiritually evocative in the history of the cinema. A connection Malick was surely aware of, and if he selected this piece in part to steal some of that Preisner/Kieślowski gravitas for himself… it worked.
The film continues to be gorgeous throughout – Lubezki is not perhaps in quite the same state of pure bliss as he was with his last Malick collaboration, The New World, but he’s still one of the most gifted cinematographers now living – though it only regains, or even attempts to regain, that operatic bigness in the very last scenes, Malick’s attempt to create his interpretation of what heaven is like; or maybe it’s better to say his vision of the inner soul at peace with itself, and maybe that’s what heaven is meant to be. Instead, the bulk of the movie is taken up with the O’Briens in the years before their son died, largely focusing on Jack’s growing awareness of the merits and limitations of both his parents: his mother, representing the spiritual and the giving and loving, and his father, desperate for success in the world, trying to teach his children what he thinks is right and in the process depriving them of love that he doesn’t know how to express. This could be unbearably trite, were it not for Malick’s customarily subjective treatment of the material: having whipped the film into shape with a small army of editors (including his frequent collaborator Billy Weber), the film is similar to his other films, in that it throws continuity to the wind and cuts according to something more intuitive and poetic. The overall structure of the film is in fact musical far more than it is narrative, based on repeated concepts and images, rhythms that advance and then restate themselves; it turns the simply matter of domestic unhappiness into a visual flow that recalls the gauzy texture of the director’s earlier films, paeans to nature all, while grounding that flow in a far more human-shaped box. Do I call The Tree of Life his best work? God no, not on one viewing. Merely the one which seems most concerned with the personal scope of the material and not the universal, a bold claim to make for a movie which contains the creation of the universe; brazenly, Malick turns this material into a metaphor for the O’Briens themselves; or perhaps he makes the O’Briens a metaphor for the universe; certainly the conflict between a son desperate to make his own way and a father whose love expresses itself as cruelty is reflected in the film’s concept of God’s relationship to his creation. Either way it results in a heady, rich film: one that is extremely beautiful both visually and aurally – Alexandre Desplat’s contemplative score is a perfect match for the complex movement from one image to the next – but whose beauty never blocks, and in many ways emphasises, the struggle within, of people striving to find grace wherever it resides, in a tree or in a child or in the lines of a building reflecting the clouds. It is a noble and haunting movie, one that left me reeling like no other new film I’ve seen in literally years.