Revisiting The Tree Of Life (2011) – Terrence Malick’s magnum opus
I realised there’s loads of films I watched and reviewed last year but never got around to posting, so here’s the first in a whistle-stop tour of the ones I missed. And what better way to start than with 2011’s best film, as voted by the Cannes Film Festival jury, Sight & Sound, and many others.
The Tree Of Life
(Terrence Malick, US, 2011)
Intimate/epic. Naturalistic/star-gazing. Intoxicating/infuriating. Malick breaks free of Hollywood’s garden fence with a film of tangled roots, soaring branches and exquisite foliage.
“The chapter has closed, the story has been told,” Sean Penn’s architect Jack is advised by a colleague early in The Tree Of Life. When asked, “What did you do?” the reply comes back: “Experiment.” It’s a cute nod to the nature of Terrence Malick’s fifth film, in which a director long given to abstraction and intellectual ambition attempts to do everything in a single film, and damn near pulls it off.
Weaving Jack’s mid-life crisis in the present day, his childhood in 1950s Texas and nothing less than the beginning of life of Earth (complete with dinosaurs!) The Tree Of Life is a bizarre, intoxicating one-off. Plot-wise it’s a hybrid of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stand By Me; in tone, it veers from the childlike awe of Spielberg to unsettling dreams and dissonant sound effects that recall David Lynch. (Finally, maybe, Malick is letting on what he did throughout the 1980s. He was assimilating movies.)
Malick has never been shy of pretension and many will find this infuriating. I did, at times: the undergraduate theology, and those annoying mannered voiceovers Malick is so fond of, act as cringe-powered handbrakes on an otherwise immersive experience. And the feeble ending is as bathetic and crushing a disappointment as the similar climax to Lost – a trite, kitsch attempt to portray the Afterlife whose solemn closure seems bent on destroying the subtle, ambiguous mood of the rest of the film.
Fortunately, none of this is enough to swing the clapometer away from the extraordinary feat of filmmaking achieved elsewhere. For me Malick has refined his style into something approaching perfection: certainly, this is the most intense emotional response I’ve had to a film in a while, a feeling of joy and sadness that is near-unbearable but so addictive I was rapt with attention and impatient to see what was coming next.
In outline, the film sounds trite, a simplistic juxtaposition of one man’s existence with the wider mystery of the universe. Yet the rhapsodic, insistent pull of Malick’s editing, the luminous beauty of the cinematography and the minute observation of his direction transcend any schematics. Presumably because of the director’s fabled, painstaking methods, this really feels lived-in: an uncanny evocation of childhood. A sequence showing Jack’s infant years is an impressionistic montage of memory and experience (being scared by a dog, being startled when his baby brother hits him) that is so naturalistic and unfakeably warm it transcends specifics of setting to be universal.
It helps that Hunter McCracken, as the boyhood Jack, is startlingly good: an adventurous, inquisitive and gauche child in the process of shaking off his innocent wonder to become a sullen, secretive man. The duality of character that emerges reflects his parentage. As the dad, Brad Pitt shakes off celebrity to become an archetypal father: stern and broad, yet whose bullying is never less than well-meaning. As the mum, Jessica Chastain might look like the typical Malick heroine, a serene, spiritual presence who in one fantasy sequence is witnessed floating in the air, but Chastain makes her capable of fire when called for. It’s a memorably quiet, but never vacant, performance.
What has any of this to do with the digression into special effects, as Douglas Trumbull plays with air and water and colour to fashion imagery to explain creation? Or the modernist high-rises in which Penn lives and works? Throughout, the film takes delight in the sheer tangibility of things – down to the dirt in a baby’s fingernail – from which Jack, from which all of us, draw our experience. This is a film that makes an absolute mockery of any claims made for 3D’s superiority. With the right cameraman (and Emmanuel Lubezki is surely now the world’s best) you can achieve the sensation of touch with just two dimensions.
And with it comes the film’s purpose. Jack is brought up in a God-fearing age – but why put a label on the majesty of creation when it’s all around us, in the things we do, the things we make and the world around us? Malick is an eternal optimist, filling the speakers with gorgeous classical music, and the screen with rippling streams or sun-dappled leaves (a tree is seldom absent here, but without the cloying symbolism of the recent movie, The Tree). The film doesn’t need its silly coda when Malick makes such a strong case for this life being the one we should be living. Even when Jack is rebelling against his Eden by firing a frog into the sky on a firework – surely the ultimate sin for nature-lover Malick – the director gives him the perfect get-out clause. It was an experiment. Just like this film. Just like life.