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In The Tree of Life, Malick’s Experimentation Gets Under the Skin

In The Tree of Life, Malick's Experimentation Gets Under the Skin

With the debate about its Oscar chances heating up and the film now available on DVD and Blu-ray, Matt Brennan’s “Now and Then” column this week revisits Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life marks director Terrence Malick’s fifth feature in the 38 years since his debut, Badlands. It’s an output that might seem thin at first glance: Woody Allen, in the same period, directed 40 (!) films, some of which (Annie Hall, Husbands and Wives) deserve to be saddled with the word “classic.” But Mailck’s genius — and, watching The Tree of Life again, I think that’s a fair word to use — can’t be seen in traditional terms. Owing more to the 1920s “cinépoems” of Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Joris Ivens than to Hollywood narrative films, The Tree of Life, whatever failings it may have, reconfirms just how beautiful and emotionally compelling experimental filmmaking can be.

And experimental it is, reaching back to the birth of the universe and up to the gates of heaven, placing its tale of a middle-class Texas family in the 1950s at the center of an orbit of microbes and dinosaurs, primordial gases and choral hymns. Yet the cosmic concerns, as thematically important as they may be, are an easy red herring for those critical of Malick’s “pretense.” For the movie is also an audacious piece of film humanism, packed with tender close-ups of faces in varying states of elation and grief. Take Brad Pitt, playing the family’s square-jawed patriarch, loosening his tight-lipped, grim face after news that his son has died. Eyes brimming with tears, he reflects on criticizing his son for not turning the pages of his piano music correctly — displaying, without histrionics, his regret at having wasted even a single of life’s precious moments.

This visual and narrative interplay of present and past, reality and memory, individual and cosmos builds toward a powerful kind of stream-of-consciousness. Without resorting to, say, a hackneyed use of split screen, Malick conveys as well as any great literary modernist the spontaneity and simultaneity of our thoughts. Free flowing, associative, and impressionistic, the film’s style is maddening only in the sense that it refuses to see the questions it poses as having simple, explicable answers. Instead the mother (Jessica Chastain) vacillates between calling on us to “love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light,” and crying out in the dark for God’s response: “Who are we to you? Answer me!” Similarly, Pitt’s character is no mere suburban archetype; his gruff, even ruthless manner exists alongside his exalted organ playing and love of Brahms.

In the end, Malick’s inclusion of lofty spirituality may be both the film’s greatest weakness and the core of its impressive strength. The Tree of Life is nothing if not a film with the courage of its own convictions, and perhaps frustrates some viewers because those convictions are taken up with almost evangelical fervor. The parts set in Texas, then, are not successful just because they are the most “narrative,” or historically adept, or exquisitely photographed (by Emmanuel Lubezki). They are not discrete elements, but are woven through with flashes of grass, waves, sun, stars — and thus imbued with the same wonder that characterizes the film’s images of the prehistoric.

One doesn’t have to be religious, or even spiritual, to appreciate such portents; The Tree of Life works, to my mind, because it engages the viewer at least as much on a visceral level as a philosophical one. It’s akin to poetry or, given the elegiac chanting and soaring arias of the soundtrack, to music: the lines have their own rhythms, instruments, and volumes, but they operate best in tandem. I’m not a believer myself, so I was surprised to be roped in by an explicit reference to God early on in the film, one I think sums up the way in which the experimental, deployed with the vigor of The Tree of Life, can burrow more deeply beneath the skin than any plot device. After her son’s death, the mother seeks a pastor’s guidance, and he tries to reassure her that the son’s “in God’s hands now.” “He was in God’s hands the whole time,” she says. “Wasn’t he?”

[Photos and trailer courtesy of Fox Searchlight.]

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