Tree of Life (2011)
Dir. Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, plus a few shots of Sean Penn looking out the window or walking barefoot on a metaphysical beach.
For his fifth total feature-length film in a career marked by the glacial pace of just over one film per decade, Terrence Malick apparently decided to just go for it and make his FEMME FATALE. If we are really lucky, every director with a distinct style will get at least one chance in their career to go whole-hog wild and indulge every one of their fetishes, quirks, themes, and tricks and create something really crazy that most people won’t like but is endlessly fascinating to cinemaphiles. For De Palma, this was FEMME FATALE. For Gilliam, IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS. For Seagal, ON DEADLY GROUND. “Normal” people don’t generally like these films very much because they’re so weird and crazy and hilariously tone-deaf. But they’re such pure distillations of a particular vision that I can’t help but be fascinated by them, and I’m always up for another swing for the fences.
With TREE OF LIFE, Malick has completed his long, slow drift away from narrative (or at least the pretense thereof) into a distinctively Malickian hazy dream of suggestion, atmosphere, and symbolism. Its ambition is practically dripping off the screen, and its sense of importance barely leaves room for an audience in the theater. Malick is not just asking the big questions, he’s shouting them like a Tourettes patient at a Tea Party rally. What is man’s place with God, the universe, and everything? Can we accept the authority of a God who allows suffering and misery? How bout pain and memory and family, what’s up with that stuff? OK, so those aren’t exactly new questions, but Malick asks them rather more overtly than most (sometimes just having creepy whispered voiced just outright ask them) which is where I got hooked. I mean, this thing begins at the dawn of time, takes us through the various geologic epochs (including my personal favorite Devonian period) and has fucking dinosaurs in it for God’s sake. How many pretentious art house films have not one but three sequences with different dinosaurs? Not enough, that’s how many. Terrance Malick is trying to address that ratio, but he’s only one man. Eric Rohmer, check yourself.
So I was excited about that. What I was less jazzed about is the family drama at the center of this thing. You know me, man, I’m always up to watch some trippy experimental jazz with stock footage of volcanoes and some gyrating light patterns, but you’re gonna have a tough time getting me in the theater with the promise of a tightly woven family drama about the complicated feelings between a boy and his father and zzzzzzzzzz. I was worried this was gonna be a bait and switch, where Malick lures me in with the promise of mid-grade CG dinosaurs but then spends most of the time droning on about people’s feelings.
Well, as the movie roles, I was relieved to see my initial fears were unfounded. There’s a little context-free nonlinear family stuff, and then it’s straight back to the beginning of time for you. You get to see God, (he’s actually a little unimpressive, looking like a meeker version of the screensaver drug trip from ENTER THE VOID) the creation of the universe, the formation of the planet, a plesiosaur (actually scientists now doubt that their necks would have been sufficiently muscled to hold their head up like this out of water, so that must be a metaphor or something) and I think some weird fish or something. No giant sloths, though, that apparently wasn’t important for the story.
So it’s all fun and trippy, and then we get to Sean Penn as an old version of Jack, the boy played as a youth by the awesomely named Hunter McCracken in the film’s primary narrative. Old Jack is a fancy pants architect, which gives Malick cause to luxuriate in the abstract grandeur or some big spacious modern buildings. Say what you will about Malick, (to yourself. In the meantime, listen to what I say about him) you can’t deny his ability to find amazing shots on everyday things, here turning the glass ceiling of a building into a stunning abstraction which probably symbolizes something like God or Death or Memory or something like that. Then we get Old Jack looking sadly out a window and flashing back on his childhood where his dad is Brad Pitt and his mom is Jessica Chastain.
This is the part I was worried about; I wasn’t sure how the mundanity of a childhood in Waco Texas in the 50s was really going to live up to all the big picture stuff. But a funny thing happens here. The longer you watch the family, the clearer it becomes that this is heart of the film, the classic work of genius. This is literally, with no hyperbole, the best depiction of youth I’ve ever seen put to film. McCracken is beyond fantastic as a normal kid entering the choppy waters of adolescence while his dad starts to gradually fall apart, taking the family with him. It’s a genuinely stunning document of a child’s focus, wisely depicting the child’s here-and-now reality where a caught frog has as much wondrous significance as a burning house but also noticing the budding sense of larger forces afoot as young Jack begins to question his dad and see the cracks in his larger-than-life authority.
It’s not just a depiction of youth, though; it’s a depiction of memory. It’s entirely possible this is a highly subjective depiction of events, but it has a staggering emotional resonance and emotional truth to it. No film I’ve ever seen better captures the shards of intense memory which linger in our mind – a chance encounter with an old face, a stolen glimpse of a guy getting arrested, the image of a sunbeam playing over a mother’s hands. This isn’t metaphor or symbolism or a way to ask The Big Questions – it’s important because it informs our memory, our sense of self. Yes, we remember the big events, but the fragments of the everyday end up weighing just as heavily on our memory and our perception of who we are and where we’ve come from. Images, smells, words – tiny but potent icons which represent a past which is mostly elusive.
Pitt is excellent as the complex father, a sensitive and sometimes warm man who is gradually being crushed by his inability to meet the standards he thinks society is setting for him and slowly turning into a bitter bully. He wonderfully conveys the father’s deepening frustration and isolation but lets us see the good person he could have been, too, which makes his escalating brutality all the more frightening and painful. His disintegration turns the family abode into a bunker under siege from within, a chaotic nightmare of uncertain tension which might erupt at any point. Chastain brings a sense of gentle serenity to the mother, but her character is oddly underdeveloped considering the richness of her husband’s characterization. Old Jack seems to remember her as a saintly Madonna, offering perpetual comfort and forgiveness even as she is powerless to meaningfully stand up to her husband. We never see her get mad, or snap at a kid, or find herself tempted to be unfaithful, or do anything other than be selfless and stable. This might be interpreted as merely a son’s idealized memory of his mother, but it’s so markedly shallower and less interesting than Jack’s memories of his father that it stands out as disappointing and maybe even a tad stereotypical.
Even so, Malick’s camerawork (mostly hand-held in this section) marvelously captures the atmosphere and the deep, mysterious magic of childhood experience. McCracken feels so real and so vital, and his relationship with his father is so fraught with an almost painfully believable tension, that the whole thing feels as deeply moving and honest as anything I’ve ever watched. Even when Malick starts to get arty again and puts in needless shots of mom wandering through misty woods with cornball whispered voiceovers like “Father! Mother!—forever you wrestle inside me,” the whole thing simply feels too grounded to really derail.
Unfortunately, Malick doesn’t know when to stop. He had me sitting transfixed, through one of the most moving and sensitive portrayals of childhood and family dynamics ever created, and with only the barest wisp of narrative. It’s so good my filmgoing companion actually found it very hard to watch – too painfully honest, too close to the real thing. Too close to a lot of the real heartbreaks and cruelties which lurk below the surface in, I suspect, most of our memories. Malick sold me a ticket based on dinosaurs and managed to seduce me into loving –loving-- a nonlinear, free-floating family drama. But that wasn’t enough for him; it didn’t seem big enough, important enough to address all those Big Questions about God the Universe and Whatnot. So rather than ending it on a note of profound honesty and quiet, unassuming power… he had to do his version of the 2001 A SPACE ODYESSEY ending.
So suddenly we’re back with Sean Penn, and he has to cross through this wooden doorway on the beach and go up in a big glass elevator into memory or heaven and confront his parents and brothers and they walk barefoot on the beach and we go back to the universal scale and see God again. And you know what, after watching something as rich and legitimate as the family drama which anchors the film, it all seems very trite and needless. Somehow those Big Questions about man’s place in the universe and God’s right to rule us seem kind of pompous and silly compared to a kid watching his family fall apart. Without meaning to, I think Malick reminds us that for all our high-minded philosophy, our deepest experiences come from life itself, not from shouting questions into the cosmos and waiting for an answer. True, those questions are not entirely distinct from our daily lives either, but they may actually be better answered through the surprising gentleness of a father’s hand on his son’s shoulder than through walking barefoot on a metaphysical beach.
No no, it's a metaphor! He's not really walking in the desert! It means something else so that means its automatically deep. If you don't think so it's because you don't "get" it.
I don’t fault Malick’s ambition, nor do I begrudge him his more esoteric examinations of the universe. He opens with a quotation from the book of Job, as God asks Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" In the movie’s context, that becomes a question about Man’s place in the universe, and God’s place in the life of man. But maybe Malick ought to look a little closer at the original context of that quote. It’s what God says to Job after wrecking his life in a completely arbitrary and cruel fashion. Finally, after never losing faith while everything he loved was taken from him, Job’s composure cracks and he asks God what the fuck his deal is, and God answers with that line. It’s not a metaphysical question; it’s a rather stinging rebuke to anyone who might question God’s intent. It’s advice to not ask questions which you couldn’t possibly understand the answers to. If that’s the case, what’s left to us?
Maybe to find our meaning a little closer to home. To find those little shards of portent memory, and to build a lifetime with them. To live deeply in this haunted, strange, painful but beautiful world. Malick may be more interested in questioning it, but his camera and his actors remind us just how potent it is to live it.