Terrence Malick worked slowly—there was a twenty-year gap between “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998)—until he got to “The Tree of Life,” from 2011, which I discuss in this clip. He worked on the film for a long time—he had ideas for it that went back to the eighties—but, once it was done, it set him on a new path that he has been travelling with a newfound speed. “To the Wonder” followed, in 2012; “Knight of Cups” premièred, at the Berlin Film Festival, this year, and he’s supposedly now editing another feature, set in Austin, Texas, and starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, and Michael Fassbender. Part of the spark is due to the newfound presence of sympathetic producers; part of it arises from Malick’s own new style—or, rather, from the new mode of production that goes with it. With “The Tree of Life,” Malick liberated his cinematic vision by going to its source. It’s a personal film that tells stories about Malick’s own life, but it also delves into the very origin of Malick’s imagination. It plays like a cinematic self-psychoanalysis. The main precedent is Jean-Luc Godard’s series “Histoire(s) du Cinéma,” which proved similarly liberating for Godard.
With its invocations of the Book of Job and breathy incantations about the "way of nature and the way of grace", Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life begins more like a prayer than a movie. It demands hush and attention but it also craves reverence; it certainly requires calm, a work that needs to be watched, not just recollected, in tranquillity.
Its first image is a shimmering oval of light in which it is just possible to discern, for a moment, a hand, perhaps that of Jesus. It soon gives way to grass and leaves and wafting net curtains, a tumble of gorgeously tasteful images underscored by a whispered voiceover. This is trademark Malick, using all of cinema's possibilities to express the ineffable: sound, image, dialogue, music, design. One notes, happily, he has yet to use 3D.
A woman (Jessica Chastain) in a beautiful, modernist house full of American classic retro furniture receives a telegram and, on reading it, collapses, letting out a howl.
Brad Pitt (excellent throughout) is at a private airport, receiving the news on a telephone, inaudible above the jet propellers. We gather a child has died. "I just want to die and be with him," whispers the grieving mother. This quick section also contains scenes in which Fiona Shaw – her role is credited at the end as "Grandmother" – comforts the mother, able only to spout platitudes such as: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, life goes on." She also mentions, to the mother's horror: "You've still got the other two."
The film fades to black and we rejoin the action in Sean Penn's modern, arid home, where he lights a votive tea light. He goes to work and appears to be some kind of architect, poring over plans in a huge glass and steel structure. This is perhaps the only present-day footage in all of Malick's work, the first time he has shot modernity. I don't think he likes it, if Penn's anguished face is any gauge.
We hear a snippet of a phone conversation he has with his father: "I think about him every day, Dad." Is this the anniversary of that child's death, then? We hear Penn's voice saying: "He died when he was 19", so we figure he is grieving for a lost brother, trying to make sense of that death and its meaning.
I've taken two viewings to make sense of this part of the film – when I first saw it at Cannes, I was floating merrily in the sensory experience but bewildered by the narrative. With Malick, the viewer has to surrender to the cinematic flow, to trust it, seek refuge in it. But basically, this film is: Sean Penn (we learn his character is Jack) in the present, contemplating the reverberations of his brother's death, maybe some 20 years ago to the day, and trying to work out why – on an existential, spiritual, religious level – it happened.
Researching the allegedly unknowable Malick recently, I learned – and I wouldn't want reality to be a spoiler – that his brother, Larry, committed suicide in Spain while studying guitar under the teacher Andrés Segovia in 1968.
In The Tree of Life, just before the mother receives the telegram, the camera floats past a teenager's bedroom in which a guitar stands, propped up by the bed. Later in the film, we will see fleeting shots of a young brother practising his guitar. This is hardly the cinema of a recluse, then, but a deeply personal work that reveals the author's soul. It will strike chords with anyone who has ever questioned life and death.
And then,22 minutes in, The Tree of Life becomes something extraordinary. The next 17 minutes are gobsmacking, requiring unbelievable daring and confidence from the film-maker, but also beseeching a giant leap of filmic faith from the viewer. Malick, in short, goes off on one.
Shots of planetary movements, hot geysers, lava, bacteria, molecules, jellyfish, canyons and churning seas give way to a CGI dinosaur caressing another injured beast – a scene of prehistoric kindness. Like the polar opposite of Michael Bay, these aren't special effects, these are ideas. But they are also risky, baffling, beautiful images. Are they Darwinian or creationist? They're certainly a little studenty and Discovery Channel-ish, a sort of lava lamp cinema. If you feel like laughing, maybe that's OK, too.
We return from this cosmic reverie, sharply, to the childhood bliss of postwar, smalltown America (clues indicate this is Waco, Texas, where Malick grew up, although the film was shot in Smithville) and this section will now form the meat of the film, as young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his two brothers play in the wide streets, swing on the trees, waft around with their ethereally lovely mother by the river. When their father – "call me sir" – gets home, things get stricter and meal times are often spent cutting meatloaf under his glare. A local child drowns, felons are arrested, there are sermons on Sundays, Dad envies the rich houses and teaches the kids boxing, he growls at them to weed the lawn and close the door quietly – years float by, like the river.
Malick's camera drifts like an angel, or a ghost, rarely staying still, its images sweeping us along in an ebb and flow, washing us in the ways of nature and the ways of grace. Yet within its ambition to convey the meaning of life, The Tree of Life is also boring, cliched and banal. Dad loses a job and the family move house and things will never quite be the same. The film flashes back to adult Jack, now wandering a salt flat, or some kind of beach, surrounded by lost souls.
What are we to make of this coda? I find it shockingly cheesy and can't quite reconcile it with other sublime passages in the same film. The hippie, Taoist, animist Malick of old is still there but, suddenly, I felt preached at. The dinosaurs, I can take; the souls on the beach, the hugging and the rapprochement with God, that's too much. Maybe I just climb a different tree.