Bible Camp

05.27.11

Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 138 minutes.


STANLEY KUBRICK made 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) during the minimalist era. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) belongs to the period of the mash-up. I’m not sure that anything else needs to be said, and having seen the film only once, I hesitate to go further, but I promised to weigh in on what was the most argued-over movie at Cannes, so here goes.

There are at least two extraordinary sequences in The Tree of Life. One occurs at the opening, just after the introductory inscription from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”) and the brief image of what I took to be the film’s “great whatsit,” a glowing red object in the middle of the screen. (Is it the heart of the Big Bang, the energy from which all life evolves, or the sign of the Big Guy in the sky who is so mean to Job, or, not to be facetious, the fragment of glass from which Stan Brakhage produced The Text of Light [1974] in its entirety?) And then we depart the Creation of the heavens and the earth to land in the yard of an American suburban house, and the camera is weaving forward through dazzlingly green grass and up and up again and again through the leafy branches of swaying trees, like a light-seeking device, looking for the sun. No one can move the camera like Malick—or, more precisely, no one directs the way Malick directs his great cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, or Lubezki’s operator, Jörg Widmer, to move the camera. Handheld or mounted on a Steadicam, the camera never, as far as I can remember, stops moving throughout what we could call the human (as opposed to the cosmic) sections of the film. Its movement is the corollary of the movement of the human eye and of consciousness, the evocation of the ephemeral nature of all life. It is camera movement as philosophy, morality, biology, and more. If Malick had trusted camera movement to carry the meaning of The Tree of Life . . . but better not to go there yet.

Rather, let’s return to this first glorious sequence where eventually we see a woman who is opening a letter or perhaps a telegram that she has just received. She is standing in the middle of a glassed-in porch and as she begins to read, there is the most startling of all the jump-cuts-on-movement, which is Malick’s standard way of connecting shots. The camera is suddenly high above the woman, and the extreme change of angle lets us experience, kinetically, how the bottom has dropped out of her world, even before she collapses on the floor in tears. The woman is Mrs. O’Brien, aka Mother (Jessica Chastain), the wife of Mr. O’Brien, aka Father (Brad Pitt), and she has just learned that her middle son has died. (How he dies or how old he is when he dies is never specified.)

One of the ways to read The Tree of Life is as a memory piece in which Jack (Sean Penn), the oldest of the three O’Brien sons, tries, decades after the fact, to reconcile himself to the death of his brother, and to put this terrible loss in the perspective of cosmic time and space stretching from the big bang to the extinction of the universe. Thus the film segues between Jack’s childhood in Smithville, Texas, in the 1950s to a depiction of billions of years of evolution that unfortunately resembles too many Discovery Channel science programs, occasionally punctuated by the kind of Old Testament illustrations that made Sunday school an aesthetic nightmare. (At those moments you have to ask if Malick is trying to make a case for intelligent design.) This despite the fact that the special effects were supervised by the legendary Douglas Trumbull and contemporary hotshot Dan Glass, and were partly concocted from old-fashioned materials (paints, smokes, liquids, lighting, high-speed cinematography) and sometimes shot on film, rather than being generated as computer graphics (although there’s much of that too).

The adult Jack (a depressed, Armani-suited architect who lives and works in towering metal and granite buildings that obscure all but the narrowest rays of light) does not appear very often in the film. He is like one of those nearly invisible protagonists in avant-garde “trance” films, the filtering consciousness that “stands in” for that of the filmmaker. If, as the production notes suggest, this is Malick’s “most personal” film, then Jack is the Malick figure. And in that case, I’m glad that at the end of the movie his depression and burden of guilt lift as he “gathers at the river” with all the people he’s known in his life, all of them seemingly metamorphosing from youth to old age and back again—as if he’d dropped some really fine acid.

As you may have surmised by now, The Tree of Life is extremely ambitious but erratic in its realization. Its most poignant, engrossing passages center on the young Jack (Hunter McCracken, tough-hearted and emotionally transparent) as he traverses the liminal zone between childhood and adolescence. And it’s here that the second of the film’s transcendent moments occurs. Jack adores his gentle, nurturing mother who tries to follow in the way of Grace, and he is in a rage at his father, whose way is that of Nature. (This is Malick’s dichotomy, spoken in voice-over early in the film. Fortunately, Pitt, who is superb in his first middle-aged role, and to a lesser extent Chastain, who—not by coincidence alone, I believe—resembles the young Jane Brakhage of Window Water Baby Moving [1959], are sufficiently multifaceted in their characterizations to overcome the designations.) Leaning in close to hand his mother a glass of water that he’s just filled from the garden hose, Jack comes nearly within kissing distance of her bare knees. In a confusion of desire and guilt he storms off, breaks into a neighbor’s house, rifles through the dresser drawers, and steals a silky white slip that he then throws into the river where it spreads out and catches the sun as it floats downstream. The action has a psychological specificity, too often absent in the rest of the film, and it’s also a brilliant metaphor for the way Jack will probably displace his Oedipal confusion onto “next-door neighbors” whom he can violate in fantasy or actuality for the rest of his life. No wonder he’s depressed. His brother’s death doesn’t account for all of his misery.

It’s a pity there aren’t more such moments, or that Malick didn’t trust the expressiveness of his images. Instead he loads the sound track with voice-over, couched between prayerful and preachy, and an overabundance of music—most of it with funereal or religious overtones—that makes the film seem like kitsch, beginning to end. I know that Malick was, in fact, born in 1943, but to depict what is, in the context of this film, the essential family as resembling a Norman Rockwell cover and to locate the moment of childhood innocence in the ’50s and the fall from grace (the death of the middle brother) in the ’60s . . . well, that’s going to give comfort to a lot of very reactionary folk living in 2011. No one could value the profoundly religious films of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer more than I do, but as I fled the theater at the end of The Tree of Life, I blurted out a very old joke: “Thank God I’m an atheist.”

Amy Taubin

The Tree of Life opens in New York on Friday, May 27.