At long last, after years of tinkering and terabytes of speculation, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life —a movie made possible by the deep pockets of local film producer Bill Pohlad and his company, River Road Entertainment—has finally been released to a world that probably doesn't deserve it. But we have it anyway, and because it is a Malick film, it must not only be seen, it must be discussed and analyzed, praised and pilloried, dissected and dissembled. "Important" films like this don’t come along very often, so when they do, attention must be paid.
For the uninitiated, Malick is the most iconoclastic director in American cinema, a famously reclusive auteur who has only produced five movies in 38 years— Badlands , Days of Heaven , The Thin Red Line , New World —and now, The Tree of Life . Despite his modest output, Malick is considered by many to be the best, most significant filmmaker in America, even though he dropped out of the business entirely for 20 years (between 1978 and 1998), leap-frogging an entire generation of movie-goers who can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino are the only American directors who matter.
For Malick-ites, it goes without saying that Malick matters most. He does things his own way, in his own time, and if you don't like it, or don't get it, you can always go see a movie by James Cameron. Malick's films require patience, reward study, and reveal themselves over time. They are not easily digested, but they can be savored, and, once you get a taste for Malick's films, you realize that one every eight years or so is about right.
Part of the interest in The Tree of Life is that it is purported to be Malick's magnum opus—the grand project that he's been incubating for most of his life. It is certainly the most biographical film Malick has ever made, and I suspect it is a more deeply personal effort than anyone will ever know—simply because Malick doesn't allow himself to be known.
But there are plenty of clues. Malick grew up in Texas, where the film takes place, and it is a story told through the consciousness of a man looking back over the contour of his life, particularly his formative childhood years. Sean Penn plays the older Jack, who never says a word onscreen but is the narrator and guiding consciousness of the film—the lens through which we see almost everything.
Older Jack is an architect, a builder of walls and edifices, but he is clearly a troubled soul. Through the prism of Jack's mind, the film unfolds as an extended philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, the nature of love, the primal importance of family, what it means to be human, why bad things happen to good people, and the ultimate value of a good old-fashioned Texas upbringing—one that allows you to strap a frog to a model rocket and launch it into the next yard, just for the fun of it. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Texas, have done a few unspeakable things to frogs myself, and can therefore vouch for the realism of young Jack's childhood experiences. Single-pump Daisy BB guns like the one Jack wields were also an essential tool of Texas boyhood, and shooting one's younger brother with it was practically mandatory.)
The Tree of Life is not a narrative film with a conventional "story." Better to think of it as an epic visual poem, a work of art layered with images that range from the microscopic and prehistoric to the farthest, most macrocosmic outposts of the imagination—back to where it all began, in the primordial aftermath of the Big Bang. In the middle is the story of an average American family in the 1950s, but the film is meant, almost literally, to be universal. Malick is trying to do in this film what Mahler tried to do in his symphonies: put the whole world into it.
The film begins with a quote by Job, then kicks into gear when Jack's mother (played by Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram informing her that her son, Jack's younger brother—the "good" son, his father's favorite—has died. In most movies, a character's death comes with a funeral and a few tears, then everyone gets on with their day. In Malick's world, death is a much bigger deal. So when Jack's brother dies it leads to a 45-minute montage of natural wonders on earth—ocean waves, jellyfish, seaweed, clouds, sunsets, rivers, trees—then spins out beyond earth's orbit to the moon, stars, and distant galaxies, and back. Using only images and a soaring chorus of appropriately celestial music, Malick shows that human life and the cosmos are inextricably connected. Forms bubble, roil, explode, and mutate. Matter and light come and go. Somehow, an inexplicable sense of order emerges from all this chaos—call it what you will: beauty, truth, grace, nature, love. But none of it can exist without the balancing forces of destruction, evil, pain, violence, and death. That is life's essential paradox, and human beings are the lucky ones who get to puzzle it all out.
There isn't much dialogue. In fact, Jack's mother and father never have what you would call a conversation. To convey emotion, the camera lingers on Jessica Chastain's lovely face, on Brad Pitt's clenched jaw, or young Jack's furrowed brow. The scenes of family life in Texas have the jerky feel of home movies, the non-linear logic of memory. Emotions are conveyed as economically as possible. And, as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Jack's mother and father are both real people and mythical archetypes. Mother as nurturer, protector, and keeper of feminine mysteries. Father as disciplinarian, taskmaster, teacher, and occasional tyrant. At the center of it all is God, the ultimate father, who, for reasons only He knows, made life maddeningly beautiful and difficult.
Granted, The Tree of Life may very well be the most ponderous film of all time, and many people will hate it for that reason alone. But it may also be the most spiritual film of all time—or not, depending on your own personal conception of life's biggest questions and the mystery of existence. In the beginning of the film, the narrator posits that the essential philosophical conflict of humanity is Nature vs. Grace—the cruel chaos of evolution, or the divine but perplexing guidance of God. "Where were you?" the narrative voice whispers. "You let a boy die. You'll let anything happen." The entire film is essentially a prayer, one in which Jack, like Job, challenges God's mercilessness, questions His tactics, and ultimately surrenders to God's will. But an atheist could just as easily watch this movie and see the forces of evolution and human determinism at work. Either way, life is a miracle, Malick suggests, and it is our job to appreciate it—even when it infuriates and confuses us.
There is so much going on this film—layers of symbolism and metaphor heaped upon layers of existential angst heaped upon layers of love and loss heaped upon humorous flashes of human silliness—that it's difficult to convey in words. This isn't a film you watch; it's a film you experience. As Bill Pohlad put it at the opening Wednesday, it's a film that "washes over you"—one that everyone will interpret differently.
To get your mind around Malick, however, it helps to recognize that he is not first and foremost a filmmaker. He's more of a poet/philosopher/artist/thinker with a wide range of interests and an eclectic, all-encompassing view of humanity. He could have just as easily been a painter, composer, photographer, or poet. In truth, he is all of these things; he just happens to use film as his primary medium.
The spiritual center of The Tree of Life also goes much deeper than mere religion. Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, taught philosophy at M.I.T., and has even published a translation of German philosopher Martin Heidegger's The Essence of Reasons . At its core, The Tree of Life is essentially a philosophical inquiry, one that makes a lot more sense if you know anything about Heidegger or Kierkegaard.
To cite just one example, consider how the film treats technology. Heidegger was quite interested in how technology changes people's experience of the world, particularly how it inserts itself between the self and the natural world, reframing the way people see, feel, and interact with reality. Jack's dad is an aerospace engineer, and whenever we see him at work he is surrounded by warehouses full of gigantic machinery. The man has dozens of patents, and flies all over the world—even to China—in his efforts to develop his ideas. But his obsession with work, with inventing new technologies, is what puts so much emotional distance between him and his family. It's why he can't connect with them or the world in any meaningful way.
This is pure Heidegger: science and technology creating a subject/object dichotomy, as opposed to poetry, which in Heidegger's thinking represents openness and integration with the natural order. Not coincidentally, when Jack's dad loses his job, he can suddenly connect with his family emotionally, because the technological barrier has been temporarily removed. In an earlier scene, young Jack sees his dad working on the family automobile. He's laid out on his back, under the car, unavailable to Jack, and Jack contemplates killing his dad for it, by kicking the car jack (pun probably intended). Compare that to another scene, when Jack's dad is working in the garden (and is therefore closer to nature). In that scene, Jack's dad motions for him to come over and help—which he happily does. All of this is deft, subtle filmmaking, but it is also pure Heidegger (with a little Husserl and Kierkegaard thrown in.) The nature of time is also a strong theme in the film, and if you read Heidegger's Being and Time (or try, anyway), you'll see where Malick is coming from, at least in part.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that the spirit of inquiry behind the film—though it has been distilled down to the basic, eternal questions of humanity—comes from a mind that happens to have read a lot of German philosophy. Not that you need to know any of this to enjoy The Tree of Life or take something constructive away from it. It tracks more like a great novel: you can follow along at whatever level you find comfortable. There is a "story," but if you want to dig deeper, you can. Biblical and literary references are everywhere. Film geeks will see tips of the hat to Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, Stan Brackhage, Hans Richter, and probably dozens of other art-house directors. It even ends with a wink to Vincent Van Gogh.
Malick borrows from seemingly everywhere, but, like all great artists, makes the thievery his own. In the annals of film, there is nothing quite like The Tree of Life in terms of structure and technique; it's an original. It's both narrative and abstract, conventional and arty, dark and sentimental, difficult and—surprisingly—easy. It is all of these things and more—much more.
The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I suspect, because everyone there recognized how courageous a stab at greatness Malick has taken. Only time will tell where his fifth movie lands in the pantheon of great American films. The ambition and scope are breathtaking, of that there is no doubt. There is a reason Malick doesn't like to rush things, and in this case, it was well worth the wait.
The Tree of Life opens at the Uptown Theater on Friday, June 3 .