Friday, May 27, 2011

Family, God, and Creation in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

In...I guess it would have been early 2006, Terrence Malick revealed the cinema to me. I had seen Badlands and The Thin Red Line already (Days of Heaven would come later), and though I'd liked both (particularly Badlands...still struggle with TTRL to be honest), I was completely unprepared for The New World. Maybe it was the difference of experiencing it first on the big screen; I don't know. But my reaction to The New World was completely unlike any I'd had to any film prior. I felt, for the first time, I had seen a vision of this art form that I didn't know was possible. No, not just a vision - a total realization. With just one movie, the cinema had become so much bigger and grander. More exciting, more alive. A friend I saw it with needed only to look at me before saying, "you loved it, didn't you?" I struggled for words, tossing out " is too small..." Walking out of it I felt both more enlightened to the world around me and numb, for it didn't always feel as grand as the vision Malick presented.

I've been waiting ever since for a new Terrence Malick film. Trust me, I was prepared to be bowled over, wowed, enlightened, enthralled, numb, and completely and totally in awe. And still The Tree of Life completely took the wind out of me. I sit and hope and pray that the movies can make me feel this alive, and so often I settle for less declaring something a "great film." Malick redefines that, shows that the standard by which we typically judge greatness is too often inadequate. I'm not saying I don't still love Never Let Me Go or Fantastic Mr. Fox or Synecdoche, New York or any of the other films I've called the best of their year, some of which are starting to become the best of the decade, and will eventually go onto be our new classics. I'm saying this to call attention to one of the greatest accomplishments I've ever seen, not just in cinema, but in all of art.

To give you a limited outline of the story, The Tree of Life is about a family in a small Texas town in the 1950s, largely as remembered by Jack, the oldest of three children, who now works as an architect (or so I gather) in a large metropolitan area. On that level, it's a totally involving family drama, a fascinating exploration of oppression, the limits of ambition, the small things we do to hurt the people who mean the most to us, and the inevitability of forgiveness. It just also concerns the moment of creation and the evolution of life, and for the purposes of this piece, that's really all you need to know.

Malick has been working on this story in various forms since the 1970s, and it still comes across with such incredible clarity of vision, such distinct purpose and vulnerability. The press likes to call Malick a "recluse" because he refuses to speak to them, or to any other public forum, but I can't imagine anyone watching The Tree of Life and not fully understanding who he is. Every other director hits the publicity trail, but what do we really learn about any of them? Can you say you've gained a greater understanding of James Cameron because he was interviewed constantly surrounding the release of Avatar? Malick puts all of his hopes, his fears, his curiosities, and his artistic ambition onscreen, and somehow that remains insufficient. There is plenty from what little we know of his life to draw comparisons to the film, but even without the advantage of a biography, can't you see it all? The search for God in all living things, the questions about why life even exists and how small we are in the grand scheme of things and how truly tragic that is on a personal level.

Malick's camera, guided by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, wanders the world, at once searching for meaning and finding it in everything. Malick has the most improvisational camera style of any director, willing to send it in any direction on a moment's notice to capture the way light fills a room, a bird in flight, a shadow, a leaf, or a tear. Too often criticized for creating beautiful images that back up nothing, in The Tree of Life they directly underline his central philosophy - that all of this matters ("All things shining," as he says in The Thin Red Line). Everything is an expression of our importance.

Malick proves that one need not treat the universe's indifference to us with a similar mindset. He expresses our infinitesimal smallness in the context of time and the universe while acknowledging how monumental our lives feel. Each moment, each touch, each action, every run down the street or argument or failure is the stuff that can shake the foundation of God himself, and yet this too shall pass. God, or at least the fundamental idea of Him, has always been a presence in Malick's films; even Badlands, albeit to a smaller degree. In Days of Heaven, Linda reflects on the apocalypse just as harvest begins, and notes the presence of the angels and demons wrestling inside all of us. In The Thin Red Line, much of Private Witt's voiceover could be read as prayer, and much of the film seems to ask what place war has in God's plan. The New World is almost a retelling of the Garden of Eden, the fall of man, and the search for redemption (in spite of the studio's attempts to advertise it as the the greatest love story since Titanic).

God (or, again, the fundamental idea of Him) is almost a character in The Tree of Life, inhabiting both the natural world, a common concept in Malick's work, and, more uniquely, the world we have built on top of it. So much of the voiceover sounds like a prayer, so much of the yearning an ache to find something at the heart of existence. All of the characters grew up in the Church, and their expression of that is varied. Both Mr. (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. (Jessica Chastain) O'Brien accept God; Mr. O'Brien on uneasy, if devotional, terms, and Mrs. O'Brien on a deeper level she probably couldn't express.

Mr. O'Brien (neither of the parents have first names) is the product of an earlier era - he would have grown up through the depression and almost certainly fought in World War II. Almost all of the adults in his childhood would have seen World War I firsthand. He's seen the cruelty of the world, and works actively to prepare his sons for it, regardless of what opinion of him that creates. And yet he yearns for love, constantly asking for them to affirm it while being unable to keep his frequent disdain for them hidden. He is the expression of the Old Testament God, certainly, in that he seeks the best for his children by huge, forceful, sometimes violent gestures that come from what he must see as a loving place. He once wanted to be a musician. He still believes that with enough hard work he can create something lasting and fruitful. This stands as perhaps Pitt's best performance to date - there exists not a trace of ego nor grandstanding. He simply inhabits a cold, cruel man with overwhelming sympathy and understanding, and through his performance I found the greatest sadness in his character.

Chastain is, like all Malick women aside from Holly in Badlands, the ultimate expression of goodness, and the God of the New Testament - loving and forgiving, she believes the postwar world will be a beautiful and good place. She is pure, curious, and in a constant state of awe, eager to pass that feeling along to her children, who sometimes lash out at her but always come back with adoration. Chastain, like Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World, often feels unleashed in this film, free to simply exist rather than perform, a defining trait of Malick's later works.

Jack (Sean Penn) seems to still be searching for God (or any meaning to his life), and while we're not given much time with the adult Jack, we understand everything very quickly. Penn is an actor who so often gives too much to his performances, so it's nice to be reminded here that simply one look at his face tells you everything about his emotional state - constant search and doubt. The product of the modern age and a steady career, he has the luxury of curiosity and no immediate need for the certainty his parents had. He wanders around his house or office in a daze, despite Malick's camera telling us that these places can be just as full of wonder as the childhood stomping grounds he remembers with equal parts fondness and trepidation. And if he'd look deep into those memories, he'd find the purest expression of faith - his relationship with his brothers. Their actions gave their churches and faith meaning - in one shot of the boys playing amongst the pews, Malick restores majesty to a building so often diminished and institutionalized. Their faith is established when their parents tell them stories, or teach them about the world around them before they're even able to speak. It is instilled in fundamental steps of forgiveness, trust, and the bond of brotherhood. They naturally came to understand all of their teachings, and in doing so, found God.

And yet I don't think of this as fundamentally a Christian film, or at least a film only people of faith will find value in (its critical championing, which includes Richard Brody's declaration that God isn't in the film at all, is enough to buoy that anyway). I think anyone who asks questions about the nature of existence and believes in the profundity of the human experience will find The Tree of Life a welcome expression of those concerns. It is simply that the character's search for meaning, along with Malick's by all appearances, come from a Christian upbringing and are explored through that foundation. Its conclusions, suggestions, and remaining questions are human ones filtered through a specific mindset but ultimately, fundamentally untethered to any specific religion.

After all that, I'm still not making any claims to understanding everything in The Tree of Life. I know some are confronted with a lack of comprehension and scoff at it, but I don't need to totally understand The Tree of Life to recognize its magnificence, to know that it deeply affected me at my very core. I spent the whole film on the verge of tears, not overwhelmed by any particular tragedy (though the film does explore that) or sadness (though the film is most definitely immersed in the sometimes unbearable sadness of existence), but by the beauty of what was onscreen and the outpouring of emotion. Many have criticized Malick's later-period films (this, The New World, and The Thin Red Line) for being terribly on-the-nose with the voiceover dialogue, but that seems more to me a reaction to the emotionally guarded landscape we now live in. Malick's prose is not only beautiful, often poetically written and so earnestly expressed by his actors, it is the complete outpouring of its author. As a society, we reject emotional authenticity as "cheesy" and "sentimental," which I find to be an immense tragedy, especially in approaching art. Emotional authenticity should be the ultimate goal, a sign of greatness, in all artistic pursuits, especially when it expressed this adroitly.

I loved The Tree of Life, and I suspect you will, too. For anyone who cares about film, it's essential viewing. For anyone who cares about art, it comes highly recommended. For anyone who wonders about the nature of existence, it is and indispensable conduit. It is an overwhelming, profoundly affecting artistic experience, one that expresses how essential our lives are all the while giving us something to live for.


Richard Bellamy said...

"I felt, for the first time, I had seen a vision of this art form that I didn't know was possible. No, not just a vision - a total realization. With just one movie, the cinema had become so much bigger and grander. More exciting, more alive." This is well said, and I agree. I'm a big Malick fan and I loved this film, which I went to New York City just to see - twice. I'm glad you loved it as well, as expressed here in your wonderful post.

Scott Nye said...

Wow, hardcore. I often thought about taking the bus to New York for NYFF when I went to college in Boston, but that was back when the cheap bus system was pretty sketchy, and I never ended up doing it.

But yeah, if any film were worth the trip, it'd definitely be this. Glad you also dug it!

Richard Bellamy said...

Scott - I guess that makes me hardcore, but it also made the whole experience special. We saw it twice in packed theaters, and the second showing was stadium seating, great seats, no previews - boom! - Malick! Doesn't get much better! I love that Malick takes risks and depicts what's important to him on a grand scale.

As for the bus from Hyannis to Providence and then to NYC - it's come a long way, though it was packed from Prov, and on the way back it was a rattle trap with no shocks and no air conditioning.

k Nye said...

Lucky you live in L.A. now....Portland release set for J U L Y!!!!! ? ? ? ? ?
Are we THAT far behind?

.....Cannot WAIT! Awesome review!