I might as well begin with the controversial: movies have a bad track record in dealing earnestly with the spiritual, not just because of the usual cultural pressures, but because the medium itself is at a bit of a disadvantage. Movies, by their nature, envelop and dominate an essentially passive audience; it foists a very concrete experience on you in a manner that doesn’t invite much engagement. During a movie, you have no aesthetic “I”, only the “I” of the camera. Say what you will about the aesthetic merits of any given Bible movie, but you ultimately cannot contemplate a cinematic depiction of the Crucifixion in the way that you can, say, a painted one.
When I think of the movies that strike me as the most spiritual, they tend to be the ones that break the most with conventional cinematic language to approximate an effect closer to that of the fine arts or music or whathaveyou – in this case, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, in a review that has been a long time coming.
Malick isn’t exactly a subtle guy – he tends to be bombastic and wears his heart on his sleeve while also trying to cram as much stuff as possible into his movies. Which is why his movies that I’ve loved the most (The Thin Red Line, The New World) were historical epics that provide a suitably larger than life canvas and a sturdy dramatic anchor for all Malick’s reveries to play out on,
The Tree of Life, which I saw for the first time around 2015 or so, baffled me a bit, oscillating as it does between being an extremely intimate, personal story and a very cosmic one
It’s also a movie which, for all its reputation as being difficult, spells out its thematic concerns within the first few minutes in a manner that feels almost insultingly heavy-handed: it’s about the dynamic between grace and nature (as defined by Malick) and how the existence of God can be reconciled with the presence of evil. But to its credit, it doesn’t attempt to stuff all this into a Hollywood narrative where it would feel predigested and cheapened. You can’t just look at these themes through one particular family’s experience of loss, but also via the history of the universe, the structure of reality itself, etc, all of which has been structured less according to a conventional three act structure, and more like an extended piece of music with individual movements and interludes, and themes and motifs that are all woven together.
This is insanely ambitious for a movie, and its reach certainly exceeds its grasp at times. But it does so with such panache and earnestness that it manages to be the strongest example of a big-budget American movie tackling religious and spiritual themes I’ve seen (It’s too oblique to be identified as a Christian movie per se, but it doesn’t resist a Christian interpretation either).
The core of The Tree of Life is seemingly architect Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn as an adult and Hunter McCracken as a child) reflecting back on his childhood in 1950s Waco, Texas on the anniversary of his younger brother’s death. It takes over a half-hour to arrive at this, though, and for a significant amount of time, the child Jack replaces the adult Jack altogether as the movie’s vantage point.
We begin, rather with some impressionistic glimpses of his mother’s (Jessica Chastain) childhood, which, after talking about the necessity of choosing between the way of grace (love and forgiveness) and the way of nature (selfishness and pride), leads directly into the time of her son’s death at age nineteen. Which segues into the movie’s most infamous segment, an extended special effects-laden sort of natural history of the universe. Eventually, things do centre on Jack, and his troubled relationship with his father (Brad Pitt), a failed musician who loves his children, but whose desire to succeed vicariously through them makes him into an oppressive presence in the household. This takes up the longest chunk of the movie. At the end, everyone is taken up into a rather esoteric heavenly vision.
Structurally, it’s a very different from earlier Malick flicks like The Thin Red Line, which is driven by some dramatic action (i.e the capture of a strategic hill in WWII), or even something like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which at least unfolds as a sort of linear history. The Tree of Life instead is more of an abstract movement from the anguish of death at the opening to the transcendent vision at the end. Very little about the family drama is resolved; it’s all chopped up into a stream-of-consciousness that serves the tonal purposes of the movie’s reverie.
This is what I couldn’t quite grasp until quite recently; for I’ve tended to feel that the movie is just a low-key drama with a lot of extra stuff tacked on. That extra stuff could be pretty amazing – the crazy natural history sequence is hands down the best individual sequence of the decade – but on the whole, the thing lacked structural coherence.
But in light of what I’ve said above, it makes sense. The movie’s individual parts are movements that gradually transfigure the existential anguish of the beginning. There’s a way in which, for instance, immediately following it with that crazy natural history sequence has the effect of matching that human cry with, to use St. Paul’s phrase, all creation groaning, and thus to say, not that the human actors are unimportant in the grand scheme of things (as I think moving the sequence later on may have done), but to underline that the issues of life and death, and nature and grace are ones which implicate all of creation.
Even during the section that is most focused on Jack and his father, the movie is often willing to put on the breaks and throw in stuff that isn’t really germane to anything in particular, but which fosters the sort of contemplative mood it develops. It feels a bit at times almost like a conventional, Spielbergian drama that has been fragmented and rearranged into something else (Malick certainly shares with Spielberg a certain “aw shucks, isn’t it wonderful?” sentimentality, to say nothing of the themes of daddy issues found here). This doesn’t always pay dividends – there are some false notes, and the movie as a whole could probably stand for a slightly tighter edit.
But this is all abetted by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, which is some of the best ever. Even if it is a very ideas driven picture, it never loses sight of the primacy of images, and The Tree of Life as a whole is, if nothing else, a marvellous succession of striking imagery.
Sometimes that imagery can get a little schematic. As many people have often noted, the father and mother quickly become the movie’s embodiments of nature and grace respectively. And if I do have a criticism here, it’s that in identifying grace the most with the one character who is shown to be rather passive and somewhat ineffectual, it comes close to identifying goodness with softness and frailty. There’s little of the idea that grace and goodness can also hit hard when necessary, something which so vividly informs the fictions of Flannery O’Connor, another (more Catholic) mystic of Southern Americana. Still, the parents are never allowed to slip into mere allegory, and the rareness of even seeing these sort of themes treated with sensitivity by a major filmmaker makes me rather forgiving towards Malick’s shortcomings.
So it’s a movie which has grown on me, to the point where I might even put it at the top of the Malick filmography (that I’ve seen). Though it’s also a good example of why questions of “best” can be a bit misleading: it’s a more flawed movie than the likes of The Thin Red Line, but also more ambitious, hitting higher highs in the process. Along with Fury Road, it strikes me as one of the few standout masterpieces of the decade which will prove to have a long shelf-life.