Pick of the week: Malick's gorgeous, crazy "Tree of Life"

Pick of the week: Fresh off its Palme d'Or win, can the gorgeous, goofy "Tree of Life" find an audience?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 27, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

At least until Lars von Trier stole the spotlight by proclaiming his addled sympathy for Adolf Hitler -- and although we should've heard the last about that, we probably haven't -- Terrence Malick's long-awaited and long-delayed new film "The Tree of Life" was Topic A at Cannes this year. Frequently beautiful and even more frequently baffling, Malick's would-be masterpiece premiered to a confused chorus of boos and cheers and ended up by winning the Palme d'Or, Cannes' trademark prize. As jury president Robert De Niro put it, it was a movie with "the size, the importance, the intention -- whatever you want to call it."

Whatever you want to call it, indeed. "The Tree of Life" is finally reaching the general public, and what I want to call it is a terrible mess, the result of such a long and painful and personal process of gestation that neither its cast nor its director nor anybody else can really say what it's about. On one hand, it's about a transcendental observation so simple as to be banal: The vanished life of an almost-forgotten family, half a century ago in a small town in Texas, is connected to the larger life story of the universe, which we hardly think about but is around us and within us all the time. On the other hand, as a former doctoral candidate in philosophy like Terrence Malick could tell you, the simplest observations are often the most profound moments of insight.

And on the other, other hand, no movie is as much about its supposed subject matter as it's about its delivery of pictures and sound, and Malick is nothing if not a believer in the mysterious unity of form and substance. To my taste the visual and auditory experience of "The Tree of Life" is frequently spectacular, but also nearly drowns the film's Texas family story in a rising tide of mystical mumbo-jumbo, culminating in a vision of the afterlife that seems sentimental and alarmingly literal-minded.

You can tell me all you like that the religious visions and addresses to the deity in "The Tree of Life" are metaphorical and nonsectarian, and my response is: Kind of, maybe, but not that much. I speak as someone who does not quite qualify as an atheist, someone with a pretty high tolerance for nonspecific spirituality and a near-worshipful relationship with the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (a probable influence on "Tree of Life," although as I mention below Malick doesn't wear those on his sleeve as other filmmakers do). It was undeniably brave of Malick to go this deep into karmic-cosmic-evolutionary-Christian woo-woo, but I honestly wonder who's going to swallow it. "Tree of Life" feels too credulous for bicoastal secular-humanist art-house audiences, but way too tripped-out and non-narrative for the stereotypical "Christian" viewer. It's a big, expensive folly of a movie, overstuffed with remarkable perception and irredeemable glop, and even with the most accomplished performance of Brad Pitt's career it may not find much of an audience. But Malick's failures -- if that's even the right word -- are superior to many directors' successes, and of course you should see it and talk about it and love it or hate it.

Even by the standards of this idiosyncratic and reclusive filmmaker -- Malick has completed only five feature films in his 38-year career, and remains best known for "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," both made in the '70s -- "The Tree of Life" tells nothing close to a conventional story. (From this point onward much of this review repurposes material from my original Cannes post, although I have made additions and editing changes throughout.) During the dense barrage of images and sounds that fill the first half-hour or so you may wonder whether it has a story at all. Malick, at one time a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford, might respond to that question with questions of his own: Does the Bible tell a story? Do the Upanishads? Does the 13 billion-plus-year history of creation -- large or small C, as you prefer -- tell a story? Those are relevant touchstones or reference points for this massively ambitious work of allegorical and almost experimental cinema that seeks to recapture the lived experience of a 1950s family, after the fashion of a Texas Proust, and connect it to the life of the universe, the nature and/or existence of God, the evolution of life on earth and even the microscopic chemistry and biology of life.

Yes, there are dinosaurs, as you know if you've seen the movie's already-famous trailer. (They look borrowed from the "Prehistoric Planet" series my kids watch, and unfortunately have even more of that weightless CGI feeling.) They show each other kindness, and while that's a nice thought I ain't buying it. There are Hubble Space Telescope images of distant galaxy clusters, animated sequences of asteroids crashing into the infant Earth and chromosomes wiggling themselves into the double helix, undersea photography of marine life, images of human childbirth. There are discussions about Satan and evil, a sermon on the injustice and ubiquity of suffering taken from the Book of Job -- a key text for this film and indeed for the entire Western religious-philosophical tradition -- and portentous voice-over narration, apparently directed at the Abrahamic God or the universe or an absent loved one. ("In what shape did you come to us? What disguise? What are we to you?")

One of the many reasons to admire Malick is that he is far less reliant than other major directors on other people's movies. I mean, I'm sure he's seen plenty of them, but he never seems obsessed with quoting obscure genre films or sequences out of Eisenstein or Michael Powell, or making work aimed at fellow directors and their legions of fans and followers. So the fact that "The Tree of Life" clearly has a relationship to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" feels both deliberate and carefully considered. You could almost call it a remake or a reverse-engineered version of Kubrick's massive head-trip, one in which humanity begins in space and then returns to Earth. I'd put it this way: If the cosmic astronaut God-baby from the end of "2001" came back to earth and made a movie, this would be it. (And we wouldn't understand what it was trying to tell us, either.)

Yes, amid all the murky, pretentious, religious cum scientific chaos, there's a movie star. Brad Pitt plays Mr. O'Brien, the hardass father of the mid-century family (no first name is indicated, and you call him "Dad" at your peril), which gives him a chance to sport a neat barbershop haircut and a tightly tailored period wardrobe. Sean Penn plays his adult son, Jack, many years later, when he's an architect or a real estate guy or something in Houston, but it's more like the idea of Sean Penn than the real thing. He appears in only a few brief scenes and mostly wanders around as if unaware that the camera is turned on. Indeed, there's not much dialogue in "The Tree of Life," hardly any conversations that last more than a few seconds and absolutely none of the extended dramatic scenes associated with the psychological-realist tradition.

That said, Malick's fragmentary approach to reconstructing the life of the O'Brien family, mostly as perceived by 10- or 11-year-old Jack (jug-eared Hunter McCracken, who really does look like Sean Penn), has a remarkable resonance, at least for viewers patient enough to allow the movie to work its spell. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera races alongside Jack and his younger brother at eye level through the flat, tree-shaded landscape of their middle-class Waco neighborhood, where they play Kick the Can and Three Flies Up; dance behind a DDT truck as it spreads great, opaque clouds of poison; join and then reject the casual, anarchic violence that comes with a mob of preteen boys. (I get the feeling Malick is really, really sorry about that frog he sent into orbit way back when.) They witness a boy drowning in a local swimming pool, which echoes something that's already been revealed: One member of this family will die young, although not yet, and that the echoes of that trauma are calling forth these memories from Jack.

Malick belongs to that select group of filmmakers who often seem more interested in contemplating nature and the landscape than in human characters -- I'd also suggest the French director Bruno Dumont and the Japanese director Naomi Kawase -- but, that said, the people in this movie are vivid and compelling. Jack's father is a loved and feared figure in the classic 20th-century mode, demanding, abrasive, violent and affectionate, a serious devotee of classical music and the Roman Catholic Church (unusual attachments in '50s Waco, I would think). It's a powerful, physical performance and one of Pitt's best, even though this really isn't his movie. As played by the gorgeous, delicate redhead Jessica Chastain, the boys' mother is also an archetypal figure, perceived by them almost as an angel or a martyred saint -- we once see her, mysteriously, floating in the air for a few seconds -- but also a real woman, playful and nurturing, not just teaching her boys to love the natural world around them but personally embodying it. In the now-famous dichotomy between "the way of nature" and "the way of grace" presented in the film's trailer, my reading is that Mrs. O'Brien says she espouses the latter but really represents the former, or perhaps a harmonious fusion of the two.

As compelling as Malick's portrait of the sometimes idyllic, sometimes feral boyhood of the O'Brien brothers is, it's bracketed by much more mysterious material. It's desperately difficult to pull off the mystical-contemplative mode and the realistic mode in the same movie, at least if you're not named Bergman or Tarkovsky. On the other hand, Terrence Malick doesn't punch much below that weight, and although I can't say that I personally buy "Tree of Life" all that much, it's a dense and complicated work, imbued with cinematic craft and visual poetry and religious philosophy, and I also won't pretend that I got all of it or completely know what I think.

Actually, the questions Malick is pursuing in "The Tree of Life" are simple ones, even purposefully naive ones, which have plagued human beings since the beginning of time. Why are we here? Why is there something instead of nothing, and how do we perceive the order in that something? What is the past, and time, and memory? Where are the dead, who seem ineradicably gone yet still somehow with us? It's Malick's highly personal, highly aestheticized methods of addressing these questions -- of connecting "the microscopic story of a family in a small town in Texas" to "the macroscopic story of the birth of the cosmos," as Brad Pitt put it at the Cannes press conference -- that is the film's real substance.

We are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, mesmerized by the mysterious relationships between parents and children that define our lives, connected at every point -- a tree we climb, an animal we feed, the earth we dig in, the thoughts we think -- to something much larger we can't really understand. Trying to get at some of that in a 2011 movie-star vehicle that cost many millions of dollars to make, and is partly an autobiographical family story and partly an indecipherable spiritual allegory -- well, that's nuts. But even though I suspect that "The Tree of Life" is pretty much nuts overall, it's mostly a good kind of nuts, a possible or probable classic of contemplative cinema to rank alongside "2001" and Tarkovsky's "Solaris," alive with passion for nature and God and art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come, everything we try to seize at and cannot grasp.

"The Tree of Life" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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