"The Tree of Life" dir. Terrance Malick, 2011.

The best way for me to speak about Malick's The Tree of Life is to speak to what I suspect will always be my favorite film of his, The Thin Red Line.  A foolish premise, perhaps, considering that The Thin Red Line did not strike me as anything special upon seeing it in the late 90's.  My guilt about this stands among the worst cases of critical guilt one could have about a movie (Did I really just find it "kind of uneven"?  Did I also comment afterwards on how the themes of naturalism were played out?  Who was that guy?)  Watching The Thin Red Line 11 years later was a revelatory experience.  The scenes of war themselves, considering that Malick was not particularly interested in shooting those segments and had never shot any kind of action/violence sequence of that scale prior to working on the picture, are astonishing and horrific.  In comparison, they make Speilberg's much hollered about opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan seem garish, sensational.  Also, the performances in The Thin Red Line are among the finest work of an amazing collective of actors, particularly Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Jim Caveizal, and John Cusack.

The Thin Red Line
I'll stop there, as I tend to get a bit overzealous when it comes to Malick's great war film, but as I see it I'm trying to make up for ten years plus of not recognizing it's brilliance.  And, I hope to come around to The Tree of Life in the same way, although I think my assessment of why it doesn't move me in the same way that Line does is not dismissive of what is momentous about The Tree of Life.  And, The Tree of Life is momentous.  Critically, it puts me in the odd position of praising it for what it attempts rather than what it actually achieves, and this seems to be a trend among even the film's most staunch supporters.  (Listen to the Slate Magazine Spoiler Special:  http://www.slate.com/id/2295596/.  This review is a good example of a trend in discussions of this film:  it's a masterpiece that is mostly going to leave you discussing the ways in which it fails.)  I adore The Tree of Life for what it attempts, what it longs for, for taking what might be the most ambitious leaps of faith attempted across cinematic time since Griffith's Intolerance in the teens, and Bunuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou in the 20's.

The Tree of Life
 But, I wasn't moved.  I wanted the characters to be allowed the same kind of breathing room they were given in The Thin Red Line; I kept waiting for those gripping passages of dialogue to pin down the dramatic conflict and allow us to take flight through the more imagistic, reflective movements to come.  I worried that Penn's character was simply "bouncing off the walls" not only within the film, but in relation to an actor capable of great depth. I felt the emotional balance achieved between character, story, and image was thrown a bit too severely out of whack...which is what I usually long for most filmmakers to do!  (Whack away, please!)  Granted, it is unfair to critique Malick based on how much I wanted his new film to work like a film he made 13 years prior, and, ultimately, I think that The Tree of Life is every bit as successful for what it attempts as The The Thin Red Line is for what it achieves.

The Tree of Life does achieve what only the finest experimental works can claim (and, make no mistake, it is an experimental film, grand scale):  allowing us to journey within ourselves through the world of the work of art.  Added to that, the film allows us to reflect on the many films it evokes while remaining wholly original in a way that can only be claimed by the likes of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Lynch.  In fact, The Tree of Life had me cross referencing the most disparate array of styles that I can ever remember a single film evoking.  Initially, I thought of Stan Brakhage, the great journeyman of light and grandfather of American experimental film.  

Stan Brakhage's Night Music 
Malick begins The Tree of Life with an image that flickers into being like a psychadelic campfire, hovers above the audience for a moment, and then disappears.  Like the best of Brakhage's experimental, hand-made films, it leaves the audience with their attention oddly displaced.  Malick has us first noticing ourselves with the first pass of this strange, warm, abstract image, which will soon become a primary refrain of the film; he reflects the light and the focus of the film back on us and, with a minor nudge (soon to become a unapologetic shove), puts us on the edge of our seat.  With this image, like the barber Bunuel, Malick parts the collective eyelids of the audience.  Ready or not, here it comes. 

Un Chien Andalou

The Tree of Life continued to evoke for me the the more avant-garde figures of film history, and reminded me that it is important to read Malick's sensibility through the lens of the experimental and poetic.  There are touches of Maya Deren, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie, anyone?) lingering in the film, particularly as we reach the more desolate landscape of thresholds that Penn's character stumbles through late in the film.  

When we finally reach the beach with Penn, what we find is most commonly referred to as a representation of "heaven," but reads more to me as an evocation of Maya Deren's beaches in At Land (1944). 

 There are those that will want to read Malick's beach through a singularly Christian lens, but the cold, confusing nature of that beach may ultimately be more of a critique of Christian belief than a reiteration of it. As in the Coen Brothers A Serious Man (2009), another recent experimental film to reach a fairly wide audience, Malick wants to raise the questions of faith and meaning without answering them for us.  Certainlyif going to the cinema to grapple with the spiritual or cosmic aspect of our lives is not appealing to you, then The Tree of Life may not be for you.  But, Malick's film can't help but remind us how frequently we engage passively with movies.  Malick demands an engagement beyond traditional understandings of character and plot, and leaves behind those who are not willing to engage with the way in which the characters and their actions reflect the aspects of grace and compassion in the world, the temptation of violence, and our relationship to the spiritual realm.  How many churches can claim that same level of engagement? The Tree of Life reminded me how much modern church-going shares with the state of modern cinema-going:  we show up, we endure, we wait for something to happen....  The Tree of Life, like the greatest of Brakhage's films, is what church should be:  challenging, engaged, dense, and exhausting.


Two quick addendum:  
1)  Malick is most likely the most revered filmmaker with the sparsest filmography, including only 5 films as a director between 1973 and 2011.  There are other films that Malick has worked on as a writer, but the primary film of note among these is the disastrous Pocket Money directed by Stuart Rosenberg in 1972, starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, two actors who have been in some of my very favorite films (Newman in The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963); Marvin in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Point Blank (1967), and Hell in the Pacific (1968).  I only saw Pocket Money after seeing The Tree of Life, and I was just astounded at how three artists that I truly adore (oh!--throw in the great Strother Martin and cinematogrpaher Laszlo Kovacs!) could make such a monumental turd.  Also fascinating in its failures, but in an entirely different way.

2)  The article I really want to write about The Tree of Life is one that explores it's similarities to the dreadful auteur Coleman Francis's endure-a-thon The Beast of Yucca Flats, featuring Tor Johnson (some may remember it from an epsiode of Mystery Science Theater 3K).  TBOYF features a similar, sometimes confusing use of voice-over as TOF.  Also, elements of naturalism creep in at the end, as an unscripted bunny rabbit sniffs Tor's radiation saturated corpse.   



Peaceful Cain said...

I'll give you "dense and exhausting!" I didn't (in fact, couldn't!) make it through the whole film. All the visual interest - the beauty, nudging and hinting you mention - was utterly destroyed with the introduction of the "storyline." And Penn in this? Forget it. His being cast served only to raise my expectations, which were not just unmet, but stepped on and crushed up. Maybe that was what Malick or Penn or both of them wanted, as I think you suggested, in a way. In any case, I was more moved by your review of the film than the film itself. Cheers

J. Hedrick said...

Thanks for the comments, Peaceful Cain. I don't think you're alone in this reaction. The film has really grown on me, and I do recommend giving it another shot. Still, I totally understand those who chucked out the dvd player in exhaustion, confusion, boredom...or all three. But, this picture is a unique case where my curiosity as to why/when/how that happened is as interesting as why people might love it, or what they're "reading" of it is. Also, have you ever seen Malick's "Days of Heaven"? If not, I highly recommend checking it out.