Thoughts on Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’

Posted by · 12:17 pm · May 17th, 2011

I decided to sleep on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” After a full day of jury duty, a few moments for dinner and then a trip to West Hollywood for the 7:30 screening — which let out near 10pm — it seemed foolish to jump right in to such a dense piece of work. I shutter at the thought of instant Tweet reactions from Cannes (and the one blogger who surely had little more than one-upmanship in mind when he decided to fill his brain with the film twice in Los Angeles yesterday).

But I guess the unfortunate fact is, this is a film met with more inflated cinephile anticipation than any in recent memory. So clamoring to express thoughts on it is to be expected. Much of this is owed to Malick’s self-imposed aura of awe, retreating from the press experience in the wake of a tough “Days of Heaven” production over 30 years ago. It is seclusion as understandable as it is not. (I recall a frustrated New Line publicist in 2005: “Even Kubrick did phoners!”)

But it’s his prerogative as an artist. I, for one, think it equally places his work in virginal dressing and diminishes it from the outset by casting it in the harsh, inorganic light of expectation. Nevertheless, just as the jury on which I may find myself is meant to judge “just the facts, ma’am,” I’m here to convey my thoughts on “just the film.”

It is Malick’s most epic endeavor. Paradoxically, it is also his most intimate. I was taken by the dreams I had overnight: visions of my parents, a family cat who once had incredible trouble delivering a litter of kittens, my bride to be, abstract feelings and images, all informed by what I had seen. That says to me it’s a film that, love it or hate it, makes its way inside you and, if you allow as much, forces you to consider it.

If you’re reading this assessment, I assume you’ve read others, so you’re familiar with the trajectory of the narrative:

A 1950s household — the O’Briens: two parents, three children (boys) — is held under a microscope briefly before Malick sends his story to the beginnings of the universe with eye-popping, bravely analog effects wizardry. The rest of the film plays out the family yarn with the understanding, it would seem, that despite the intense drama, these people and their plight are but a spec in the perspective of the greater cosmos around us.

That theme is set from the outset as Malick quotes the Book of Job. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation,” God asks the burdened, simple man in the Chapter 38 passage. The other theme of note is a Malick standby: man’s capacity for violence and impulse (deemed “nature” in the film and embodied by Mr. O’Brien, Brad Pitt’s fiery patriarch and one of the actor’s best performances) as well as love and compassion (deemed “grace” and embodied by Mrs. O’Brien, Jessica Chastain’s soft ray of innocence).

These two themes are, in so many words, two of the most cutting and honest themes of humanity that can be explored in any medium. Malick has flirted with them, particularly “nature versus grace,” throughout his career, but here he aims to reconcile them with the great unknown: the Creator.

His answer is a macro/micro vision of “all and one.” The destruction of a species is juxtaposed with Mrs. O’Brien’s pregnant belly. An up-angle shot of tree branches against a blank sky recalls the superficial veins that harness the heart (while narration regarding the heart intones over the soundtrack). A child is meant to both wrestle against and accept with epiphany what of his parents resides inside him, all the way through a successful big city career (the first time Malick has captured modernity with his lens).

And that tug of war, I think, is the central spell Malick wants to cast. But it’s the idea that it’s not nature VERSUS grace. It’s nature AND grace. As the narration from the closing moments of “The Thin Red Line” conveyed, “The brother. The friend. Darkness from light. Strife from love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”

I wonder if Malick feels them to be just that.

It’s cosmic. It’s heady. It’s trippy. It’s thoughtful. There will be those who make facile jokes about symbolism and safely feel the director has climbed fully inside his own backside. And the frustration is understandable. This shouldn’t read as a rave assessment as I am conflicted about what I saw and felt much of it labored. But with the morning dew still glistening on this latest effort from the director, I don’t think anyone should be judging in absolutes.

“The Tree of Life” is flawed. But it wouldn’t be as pristine if it weren’t. I still find the aforementioned “The Thin Red Line” to be his most precise study. “Badlands” is his tightest narrative. He married that conservative focus to a larger perspective in “Days of Heaven” five years later, and “The New World,” when narration really started to get away from him, is his most complete film, as it doesn’t carry the same definitive inchoate notes as the rest of his work (and works better, I feel, in its expanded cut).

I would call “The Tree of Life” his most thoughtful film yet, full of all the meandering and internal deliberating that comes with being thoughtful about something. It doesn’t make a complete experience, but it does make a profound one.

Sam Shepard once said Malick’s films should not be considered analytically, that they are visceral and should be evaluated (if they are going to be evaluated) in that light instead. “The Tree of Life” is the best example of that consideration yet, and I look forward to experiencing it, and evolving with it, over the years. It will be one of the enduring works, win, lose or draw with 2011 critics and audiences.

In case you missed Guy’s review out of Cannes, you can find that here.

(I’m sure I’ll be talking about this film more in the next few weeks. There is much left unaddressed, from Emmanuel Lubezki’s unbelievable cinematography to Hunter McCracken’s wonderful debut, and I promise it will all bubble up. I’m glad the film releases shortly, so we can all join in on the discussion.)

[Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

→ 26 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

26 responses so far

  • 1 5-17-2011 at 12:56 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I believe the set of reactions we have gotten for this movie was the best possible scenario for us waiting for 5/27. We can still go in without expectation.

  • 2 5-17-2011 at 1:21 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Very intelligent write-up. 5/27 can’t come soon enough.

  • 3 5-17-2011 at 1:58 pm

    Chris138 said...

    This is a very thoughtful write-up. Can’t wait until I finally get to see it after waiting for so long.

  • 4 5-17-2011 at 3:30 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    What exactly should I be expecting when I go into this film, because I have little to no idea how I should head into this film. The trailer gives us a vague idea at best.

  • 5 5-17-2011 at 3:36 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Duncan: I don’t think you want that question answered. You’re currently in the ideal state to see it — enjoy the discovery.

  • 6 5-17-2011 at 4:04 pm

    James D. said...

    Comes out June 17th here. The next 30 days will be a grind.

  • 7 5-17-2011 at 4:06 pm

    Amir said...

    ughh toronto’s release date is june 10th.
    i honestly can’t wait.

  • 8 5-17-2011 at 4:07 pm

    meep said...

    One of the most insightful reviews I’ve read so far. Malick’s films need time and multiple viewings to be fully enjoyed and appreciated. I’m a fan and I believe The Tree of Life will give me more of Malick to love.

  • 9 5-17-2011 at 4:10 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Wow, I thought you hated “The New World.”

  • 10 5-17-2011 at 4:21 pm

    tony rock said...

    I think the problem with Malick’s films is the over-reliance on ponderous narration. I get that it’s his style, but often times it comes across a little pretentious, and ironically it increases the distance between viewer and character.

  • 11 5-17-2011 at 5:07 pm

    j said...

    FWIW, MC starts with 93 with 5 reviews. A from Variety, A- from THR/Boxoffice/Salon/Indiewire.

    The New World had 6 A’s & 6 a step below, of 39 total. Variety 50, THR 70, Salon 50. I wonder how divisive Tree of Life will be in the end.

  • 12 5-17-2011 at 5:21 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    English: I was extremely unhappy (perhaps impulsively so) with the theatrical cut I saw in 2005. It felt incredibly forced and just wrong, for some reason. When I saw the extended cut, I was more appreciative, but it’s still a film that, while a complete and sewn up package on one hand, is more valuable to me for a number of its parts. And I think it’s the worst use of narration in a Malick film (and the narration in The Tree of Life is almost as annoying — it just worked for me in TTRL, however).

    Since it’s a continuing point, as tony brings it up, the moment Malick shifted to multiple narrators was a delicate time. Like I said, it worked for me in TTRL, but not so much in the last two. However, single-narrator is expertly used in Badlands and Days of Heaven, as it’s purposeful, revealing so much about the characters narrating.

  • 13 5-17-2011 at 6:32 pm

    Maxim said...

    It interesting how one wouldn’t know the film got mixed reception by looking at Rotten Tomatoes, at least not looking very deeply. It will be interesting to see if the rating changes dramatically once more people weigh in.

  • 14 5-17-2011 at 7:26 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Really cant wait for this to open up so I can see it.

    Any quick thoughts on the score and Pitt’s performance?

  • 15 5-17-2011 at 7:54 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    The New World extended cut is the only way to go. Maybe I’m just a sucker for history but I consider The New World Malick’s best film. So excited to see Tree of Life.

  • 16 5-17-2011 at 8:19 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Word of advice to anyone in NY, don’t see it at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas that theater is horrible. It has the smallest screens in the city. The only other option is Landmark Sunshine and it is a much better option.

  • 17 5-17-2011 at 8:49 pm

    Chris138 said...

    Roger Ebert just posted a journal entry about the film and he seemed to be very moved by it.

  • 18 5-17-2011 at 11:20 pm

    julian said...

    mixed reviews? Well, it gets a tentative 93 on metacritic (based on only five reviews thus far). What is striking about all the reviews I have read so far is the high score the film gets even though all reviewers are rather skeptical about many aspects of the movie. There is a marked discrepancy between words and rating. This must be due to the fact that everyone can agree on the magnitude of scope and ambition inherent in Malick’s filmmaking, and even if it is flawed (to a greater or lesser extent), it is still a great piece of cinema (or recognized as such).

  • 19 5-18-2011 at 1:32 am

    Burning Reels said...

    Does anyone know the latest on the UK release fiasco?

  • 20 5-18-2011 at 10:16 am

    Mike_M said...

    Yeah, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas is terrible… Landmark is better, but still small. It will be tough, but I may hold out until it is on a bigger screen (i.e. multiplex)…

  • 21 5-18-2011 at 11:20 am

    Fitz said...

    A thoroughly considered review. I can only hope I can glean as much from the film as you did.

  • 22 5-18-2011 at 2:47 pm

    Michael W. said...

    The Tree of Life opens here in Denmark on Thursday and it has received amazing reviews.

    “One of the most ambitious films ever made” is what one a the major newspapers calls it.

    “Sumptuous masterpiece”, “A film unlike anyone before it” and “This cosmic masterpiece is a revelation” are other quotes being thrown at it.

    The downside of it all is that it opens in just two cities. Personally I’m very close to go embark on a three hour (three hours both back and forth that is) train drive to see it at once and not have to wait…

  • 23 5-28-2011 at 12:38 pm

    KatieHall said...

    Michael W. you should totally go. Get the Hunger Games and Catching Fire book and read them on the train. I’m already imagining it. Sounds like a very nice day.

  • 24 7-31-2011 at 1:34 am

    Jonno said...

    I have just seen the film – grossly over-labored. I got the message but it was just so tediously done.
    Love is wonderful and we all come together in the hereafter living happily ever after, despite our bastardry on earth. Enough already!

  • 25 8-20-2011 at 10:18 am

    C. said...

    After Cannes, Malick won the FIPRESCI Prize at San Sebastian…
    There is a new and important review on The Tree of Life.
    Essential for everyone who has seen it carefuly, wether liked it or not.
    With several of Malick’s sources.