I admit that the only Terrence Malick film I had seen before was The Thin Red Line (1998), the 20-years-in-the-making comeback film that had actors lining up to audition for and critics tripping over themselves to praise. I went in with tremendous anticipation, and came out completely baffled. It was beautifully shot but rather abstract, a collection of images rather than a fully-formed narrative. It was a proper art movie in the guise of a traditional Hollywood war blockbuster, and the only thing it shared with Saving Private Ryan, released in the same year, was the calibre and renown of its ensemble cast.
With The Tree of Life, Malick’s latest film and the recent winner of Palme d’Or, I entered the cinema fully prepared for the director’s style, which even made me a little trepidatious like a schoolboy awaiting his exams. It didn’t make me any more fond of Malick, but I am considerably more appreciative of what he is trying to do with his work than my younger self was capable of.
The Tree of Life is made up of two very distinct strands that are intended to contrast rather than coalesce, set in vastly different moments in time, and interweaves between them throughout. One is the creation of life in the universe, starting from Big Bang and moving onto the age of dinosaurs and beyond; the other shows the life of a family living in Texas in the 1950s under the strict disciplinarian and masculine father played by Brad Pitt, and his discontented eldest son, Jack, struggling with increasingly rebellious desires. The former is painted with the broadest possible strokes: incredible scenes of the space forming under massive cosmic upheavals, planets aligning around the sun, colossal volcanic activity and sea life racing to reach terra firma – take the most vivid National Geographic special, multiply it by a thousand and it would still pale in comparison with Malick’s magnificent vision. The latter, however, is drawn in minute period detail, the camera staying resolutely eye-level to observe the everyday joys and troubles of quotidian human existence, albeit in a poetic and contemplative manner that seems typical of the director’s modus operandi.
Malick helpfully spells out what The Tree of Life is about, at least on one level, right from the start: the struggle between the life of grace, and the life of nature, as recounted by Jack’s mother (played by Jessica Chastain) as a young girl. The life of grace is one in which you go with the flow, finding peace and serenity in the surroundings rather than conflict and domination; life of nature, despite its name, seeks to place itself in the centre of things, to control events and entities, to struggle and protect itself against an inherently violent world. This was also the theme in The Thin Red Line, where Jim Caviezel’s grace sought to reconcile itself in the beautiful tropical jungle even as the madness of war raged all around him in the Pacific theatre. Here, the life of grace is personified by Jack’s angelic mother and his artistic younger brother, whose sweet nature and inherent love for the family help temper Jack’s fiery persona; they contrast sharply with Pitt’s abrasive patriarch and Jack himself, who despite an increasingly determined wariness of his father realizes he takes after him rather than the maternal side. This dichotomy provides the little narrative drive there is in the film.
Malick handles the suburban Fifties setting with great care and detail, giving the film the authenticity of contemporary photographs while refraining from fetishizing the particular fashion of the era, so that while everything is suffused with the transparent beauty that the director is renowned for, it’s also grounded and lived-in, not stylized or glamorous like, say, Far From Heaven (2002). However, Malick at the same time insists on overt glorification of the aforementioned life of grace that is above and beyond the general tone of the movie: repeated shots of Chastain tiptoeing through the water sprinkler, washing her feet and lovingly playing with her children begin to grate after the umpteenth time, resembling airline commercials rather than thoughtful results of an artisan’s vision. These are jarring breaks that unveil the overbearing hand of the storyteller, and it’s rather disquieting to find that such a celebrated master of the medium could resort to methods with all the subtlety of a pre-school picture book to deliver his message.
Malick is much more successful on the macro-level: the birth of the universe and life on earth is illustrated here with the breathtaking, haunting grandeur of a John Martin painting, absolutely awe-inspiring in size and scope, and capturing the unimaginable scale of world-creation with peerless ambition and imagination. In contrasting these scenes with the lives of the Texan family, the director allows the film to ask some very fundamental questions about our existence with directness and clarity: as Jack and his mother inquire in their soliloquy that run throughout, what are we to God? And by extension, what is the relationship between life and the world? Why do bad things happen to good people, like the biblical Job or Jack’s brother? Why do we live such unfulfilling, unhappy lives, when there is so much beauty around us? The sheer magnitude of the genesis of things – and life’s miraculously unlikely emergence – renders our human sentiments as an infinitesimal part of the relentless and mighty flow of the universe. In his retrospective of Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Peter Bradshaw wrote of the recurring motif of ‘nature’s colossal, terrifying indifference to humanity’. This is made very explicit in The Tree of Life: our stubborn attempts to make sense of our place in this world on our terms is illogical and misguided, and this makes the life of nature, and the efforts by humans to dominate his domain, all the more senseless and futile. Instead, Malick suggests that, as Pitt comes to realize that in trying to become a ‘big man’ in society he never got to appreciate the heavenliness of what he already had in his family, and as Jack’s mother comes to terms with the death of his younger brother, life should be accepted and lived, rather than struggled with. This isn’t a new or revelatory message by any means, but never has it been put in such a clear and visually arresting context.
The Tree of Life often makes you suspect that it probably all comes together quite nicely in Malick’s head, and his head only, given the waywardness of some scenes and the indulgent nature of others. But it doesn’t feel like he is engaging in a show of blinkered narcissism, because at every turn you can feel the director’s conviction in his images, and the sincerity and belief he shows in his particular way of storytelling is admirable. While the film’s considerable visual and philosophical achievements struggle at times to compensate for its over-earnest repetitiveness and lack of directorial concessions, The Tree of Life is a bold and important work by a director untainted by commercial or popular considerations, and whose marriage of staggering ambition and aching intimacy makes it well worth watching, if not readily enjoyable.