Writing about Terrence Malick's new movie, The Tree of Life, is a bit like trying to describe a particular segment of a backwoods stream--a beautifully lit and photographed segment of stream, mind you, but a stream nonetheless. The task is like living out the old Heraclitus quote about how you can never step in the same river twice. The water moves too fast, by the time you dip your toes in, it has moved on.
I also struggle with writing about it, because to do so, I feel like I will break the spell it has cast over me. The Tree of Life hasn't left my thoughts since I left the theatre. To do so is to also pretend that I got it, which I don't think I did--at least not entirely. My impressions at this point are shallow. To stick with the river analogy, I am maybe in up to my ankles, I have yet to get to the deep middle.
Though, ironically, it's the middle of the movie that is easiest to grasp. The front and the back are what make The Tree of Life a mesmerizing conundrum. It's as if Malick took the first and last reels of 2001, cut them up, reassembled them randomly, and then grafted them on to a story about a family in the 1950s. The O'Briens (played with alternating fury and vulnerability by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) have three boys whom they are trying to steer through early life. Their parenting is a bit all over the place, balancing religion with an appreciation for art (or, specifically, music) and a Protestant work ethic with a laissez-faire day-to-day playfulness. The three kids run free with other neighborhood boys, causing trouble, testing the limits of their own perceived invulnerability. The two parents pull at them, particularly trying to mold the eldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken), into the man they want him to be. Both want their offspring to end up on the straight and narrow, but in that endeavor, one is strict where the other is lean.
Malick doesn't tell his story in any linear, sequential, or conventional manner. He prefers relaying information in short puffs of cinematic smoke. Small gestures stand in for greater events, and suggestion is preferable to explicitly laying out any greater meaning or intention. An individual moment as trivial as walking down the street might be shown in three different ways, from three different angles, at three different speeds. In this way, the real story blooms into being, revealing that Malick kept a tight grip on his narrative seedlings in the early portion of the film and is only letting things take shape after he has properly nurtured them. Family life for the O'Briens goes from idyllic to troublesome. Carefree romps in the woods turn to deadly games and dangerous dares. Malick also teases us with tragedy that is to come, one that nestles somewhere in the middle of his timeline. In a few brief scenes, we see Sean Penn playing Jack as an older man, contending with his past. As an adult, he is out of step with his environment, no longer at harmony.
Those scenes with Penn mark a fascinating change for Malick, who for the first time films modern cityscapes rather than the nature scenes he is most known for (the wheat fields of Days of Heaven, the Asian-Pacific jungle of The Thin Red Line). He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Burn After Reading, Children of Men) shoot the towering skyscrapers the same way they would shoot a forest of redwoods--in awe of their majesty and from the vantage point of a puny human who is but a speck on the timeline by comparison. The Tree of Life is full of Malick's trademark visual poetry. The camera is rarely at rest. Instead, it circles and tracks and zooms; the whole of existence is constantly in movement.
If, as many would posit, the overall theme of Terrence Malick's filmography is the interconnectedness of all life, then some of the outlying sequences start to make sense. The director takes the viewer through time and space, to the farthest reaches of both, threading a slender line through various modes of existence. In some of his technique, one can see Stan Brakhage; in other spots, particularly the introduction of neon tracers as we enter the concrete jungle, Wong Kar-Wai. There is also a touch of Alejandro González Iñárritu in the metaphysical final act--though in this, it is the master taking the pupil to school, showing Iñárritu how to evoke providence via simplicity rather than self-importance. (Hint: You look outside, not inside.) (Also, one could easily argue that Malick could school Wong Kar-Wai in aesthetic technique; as much as I love Kar-Wai's movies, one assumes the Chinese director was influenced by the American one, not necessarily vice versa.) It all comes together rather amazingly, though upon first viewing, I can't entirely decide if I'm just impressed that it ended up anywhere at all. My gut reaction is that Malick is saying something profound about grief, symmetry, and the eternal endurance of the human spirit, but there are so many pieces to put together here, I don't feel confident that I have it after just a single sampling. The Tree of Life demands more time, a commodity I will happily give in exchange for a chance to see its dreamy images again.
The Tree of Life is sure to be a movie that is hotly debated for some time to come. The first thing anyone heard about the movie coming out of Cannes last month was how it was both booed and cheered, by some reports in equal measure, with others suggesting the response skewed to one particular side. (The Tree of Life eventually took the festival's top prize.) Those with a predisposition for Malick will go see the film regardless, and I have no idea how to assess what a newcomer to the man's work will make of this ambitious endeavor. Part of me worries that The Tree of Life is almost too sincere for most audiences, be it the common man or the critical establishment. Too many are quick to reject honest sentimentality. (He's carrying a Bible! Run!) Good or bad, Malick means everything this film is trying to say. It's a deliberate, deeply felt artistic expression of the like few filmmakers are capable of. At least try to meet it on its own terms before you judge. It would be easy to fold your arms against it or to embrace it wholeheartedly because of the name above the title; instead, walk in with your hands at your sides, and let the film lift them all on its own.