(2011) director Terrence Malick
viewed: 07/01/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theatre, SF, CA
Though it won the Palme D’or earlier this year at Cannes, Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, split audiences at the French film festival and throughout the movie-going world since its recent release. Some avid fans of more challenging and avant-garde films extol its virtues while many a seasoned film-goer has rejected it whole-heartedly, with many reports of attendees demanding their money back. Incidentally, I’ve heard both impassioned appreciation and cross disdain.
And me, I’m not entirely sure where I fall.
For Terrence Malick, whose filmography has been amazingly brief, though spanning decades, and largely amazing, this film is by far his most strange and avant-garde. At one point, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) alone had earned him his reputation. And for the next 20 years, he didn’t release a single feature. Then in 1998, he released The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones’ novel about the battle for Guadalcanal and it seemed as if his strange mastery of the medium was still at its heights. Then in 2005. his film The New World, a historical re-telling of the Pocahontas/John Smith love affair came out, an earnest but perhaps less successful effort.
His films have all been historical, period films, and his obsessions with images of nature and the many hues of the sun have pervaded his varying stories of human life, foibles, adventures, love and humanity. So, setting The Tree of Life ostensibly in the present day is novel enough. But the adult son (played by Sean Penn) who reminisces about his childhood in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s shifts not just back through a semi-present present to a historical past, but shifts further back to the creation of the Universe, first life on Earth, and a brief segment that features dinosaurs.
Malick has always employed voice-over narration in his films. His early films featured a single narrator, a naive teenager in Badlands and a young, similarly uneducated, but spiritually wise girl in Days of Heaven. In The Thin Red Line, he shifted among the soldiers for a variety of voice-overs, and then in The New World shifted between the three main characters. In The Tree of Life, the shifting is incessant, constant, and communal almost.
And the shifting, flickering back to a pulsing, ever-changing undefined image, transitions the story between the “present”, the past, and the pre-historic. The main story of this Texas family, with Brad Pitt as the loving, but harsh patriarch who both adores and repulses his children while fighting for his beliefs in the success in life in the acquisition of wealth and trying to teach his boys how to be tough.
No doubt it’s the more science fictional, visual effect-laden, non-narrative tropes that push this movie from beyond a stream of multiple consciousnesses, non-linear as it is, into something far more astounding, hard-to-swallow, and far out. You know if a common reference point for this film is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and yet the film is set in the largely naturalistic world of 1950’s Texas, you’ve got some rather large jumps to make in entrusting Malick with the story, your time, and your comprehension.
And when the film moved into the Creation sequence, perhaps I was more on the side of those who were more dumbstruck than nonplussed by this wild stretch. In fact, I kept thinking to myself that this psychedelic head-trip about the meaning of life was really a little too far out and that I was disappointed that it wasn’t more coherent.
But as the story, for its lack of narrative clarity in itself, somehow won me back over. After floating in space and watching the dinosaurs, I doubted my ability to re-connect with a story that had hardly gotten underway. But there is a compelling quality to this act of remembrance and acceptance and forgiveness, these Christian values which the film’s narrative show to be key to the lives of the family during the film, are the same forces and qualities that brings about the surreal, emotional finale of the film. The film is clearly situated in the science of Evolution in its perspective, but as well adheres to much of the quality of the teaching of religion, too. And is also tapped into some Modernist consciousness, something perhaps psychological, perhaps spiritual, beyond either of those dicta.
Halfway through, I was sure I was going to come out saying that it was a failure, but by the end, I was not so sure. Was it a masterpiece? Pure genius? One of those films that hardcore scholars and cineastes will glom onto and cherish for time immemorial? While others, equally astute and educated, along with average film-goers will hate and never “get”?
I find myself thinking about the film quite a bit since I saw it. I know by no means will just anyone perhaps enjoy it, but I know that there will be those who will find it astonishing, perhaps. It’s certainly the most radical film playing at the cineplex this summer. And if rumors hold true it will not be Malick’s last. He has another on the way. Whatever the ones who will despise it will think (and that included a split audience reaction as Cannes), it did win the top prize there. Most critics seem to have bought in.
I’m not passing a judgment on it here. I’m still contemplating it. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel.