24 July 2011

Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life,’ Second Time Around

Not necessarily this specific tree, mind you:
Chastain with Tye Sheridan (left), McCracken and Eppler

It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven had on me in 1978. Released as I began my senior year in high school, the sheer gorgeousness of the picture overwhelmed me from the first frames of its opening sequence, set to the “Aquarium” of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, and I went to see it again and again, with friends or alone; Days of Heaven remains a keystone of my career as a moviegoer, one of the first times it was really clear to me that I was watching a movie, and not some other form or art.

Days of Heaven was also Terrence Malick’s last film for two decades. His subsequent efforts, when at last they came, struck me as companion pieces, each requiring the other to make a single point: that war is civilized and therefore bad, whereas nature is good, or at least beyond man’s capacity to judge it, and beautiful even in its violence. The Thin Red Line (1998), a sweeping epic of World War II, struck me as too ambitious; The New World (2006) conveyed largely the same message, but through the smaller-scale story of Pocahontas and John Smith. As aesthetic experiences, quite apart from exercises in storytelling, both pictures earned my admiration, but not much more.

Now comes The Tree of Life, and at last Malick has made enough movies to prove that he doesn’t make movies the way other people do. The sensual pleasure of cinema — the richness of image, the power of sound — takes precedence over narrative, dialogue, performance. Often the most arresting contributions to a Malick film come from nature photographers — or flora and fauna themselves — rather than from the human actors, who fare best when they try least and simply exist before the camera, much as the plants and animals do in other scenes.

Hunter McCracken as young Jack

I knew before going in that I would need to see Tree of Life several times — something that New World didn’t require and Thin Red Line didn’t invite. This is Malick’s most ambitious film yet, one that strives to depict the origins of life, the nature of God, the power (and fallibility) of memory, and the limits of narrative: I’m not the sort to absorb all that in one setting.

And indeed the first time I saw Tree of Life, about a month ago, its most talked-about elements also struck me as its least successful. Just as the film’s protagonist asks where God comes from, Malick provides an answer of sorts. But since the dawn of time, students who start off essays with “Since the dawn of time” have gotten poor grades, and deserved them. At least Malick waits about half an hour before springing his “Since the dawn of time” sequence, but it really didn’t work for me — not least because it forces itself onto the smaller, more personal story that consumes most of the rest of the movie. On first viewing, the sequence seems pretentious, unintegrated, and desperate, almost as if the movie’s central drama embarrassed Malick.

On second viewing, the sequence is shorter and therefore less intrusive than I’d remembered — but otherwise not much more effective. A friend suggests that, with the “dawn of time” sequence and indeed throughout the entire movie, Malick is trying to say something about narrative, and it’s true that his method of story-telling here is often no method at all: we create our own, frankly conventional narrative for Brad Pitt’s character, to cite the most prominent example, even though much of what we see onscreen contradicts what we construct.

The Tree of Life concludes with another philosophically-minded sequence, although this time it’s greeting-card facile. On second viewing, the sequence still seems like a cop-out (is this the best that our acclaimed director, a student of Heidegger, can come up with?), and yet it’s welcome, a kind of reunion of the lost, as well as a pardon of the Father.

He’s played by Brad Pitt, who is also a producer of the film, and without whose participation Tree of Life might never have been made. But star casting — not only Pitt but also Sean Penn, who (briefly) plays Jack, our protagonist, as a grownup — is this movie’s third major problem. You never watch Brad Pitt and think, “What an intriguingly conflicted character!” Instead, you think, “My, how hard Brad Pitt is working!”

It’s not only because he’s famous but also because he’s such a physical actor that Pitt so often flounders here. For the most part, he’s seen in very tight close-up, and for all the loveliness of his face, he relies (you realize) on his whole body to make his effects: he needs to be doing something.

Chip off the block: Eppler looks just like a pint-size Pitt.

Since the Father is generally repressing his resentful rage, he’s not doing more than he’s doing — he’s not acting on his rage, which doesn’t give an actor like Pitt much to do. He’s infinitely more at home in a sequence in which he teaches his sons how to fight, for example, or when he escorts his grieving wife home after a death in the family. (In that scene, his body is telling us all sorts of things: his own grief, his concern for his wife, his embarrassment in front of the neighbors.)

It doesn’t help Pitt’s cause that he’s cast opposite three transparent, completely natural performances by young actors I’d never seen before: Jessica Chastain (the Mother), with her dancer’s grace, and Hunter McCracken (young Jack) and Laramie Eppler (the middle son, R.L.), with their grave little faces and total lack of self-consciousness. In Malick’s movies, the approach to acting is almost part of the theme: the more instinctive and uncivilized you are in performance, the closer you are to an ideal state of grace.

We don’t learn much about this family, and yet we learn everything: again, I’m quite sorry that Malick wasn’t content to tell us about them, and forget about the dinosaurs. We gather that the Father is a frustrated musician but also a gifted inventor. He’s a financial failure when he works at an industrial plant, but some time after the plant closes, he’s successful enough to have moved into a very nice, ultra-modern suburban home. Throughout the picture there are clues, especially about the Father, that what we are seeing isn’t what really happened, but merely what Jack remembers.

Consider, for example, that the Mother doesn’t age at all. She’s like the Madonna in Michelangelo’s Pietà, too young to be mother to a grown son, whereas Pitt greys up and walks with a stiffer, heavier gait. And consider the ways in which the Father’s severity is contrasted with his great tenderness; he’s physically affectionate with his sons in a way that other dads in Texas were not, in those days. In one of the loveliest scenes in the movie, the Father stops playing piano long enough to look up and discover that R.L., sitting on the porch with a guitar, has picked up the melody by ear and is playing along. There’s a look of complicity, of artistic kinship between them, that mitigates the harshness of other scenes.

Because the central conflict is between Jack and his Father, we’re left wondering: does Jack recall his Father more negatively because R.L. dies so young? Because the Father is contrasted with the Mother (all gentleness and love), and Jack feels he has to choose one? Or because a son’s breaking with his father is part of growing up, the crux of anyone’s coming of age? Or is Mr. O’Brien really just a jerk?*

It’s an understatement to say that Malick gets the family drama and the setting (with art direction by Jack Fisk, as usual) exactly right, and he makes that seem an achievement greater than identifying the nature of God. The Tree of Life is set in Waco, Texas, and it evokes an era twenty years prior to my own boyhood, in other parts of the state. But quite a lot of what Malick saw growing up was still around by the time I got there, and among the first impressions on my own life. I found a decidedly Proustian resonance in Malick’s images of a bare foot beside a lawn sprinkler, for example, as I did in the upward view of the pale Texan sky through the branches of an oak tree, and in countless other fleeting scenes, like brushstrokes on a canvas by Cézanne or Monet.

“Where are you?” the film asks God,
and the camera answers, “Above the trees.”

Malick’s confidence in his material is often part of the show. He knows that a particular image — a boy’s bedroom submerged in water, the Mother literally dancing in air — is powerful, and that he can use it sparingly to make his point. Other filmmakers would have hit you 16 times with some scenes that Malick gives you in about 16 seconds.** He’s equally sure of his music, to the point of using a theme from the soundtrack to La Double vie de Véronqiue — which is to say, somebody else’s movie, in the service of somebody else’s story.

The Tree of Life is very much Malick’s story; even when I get the feeling he doesn’t quite know how to tell it, I never doubt his authority. The connections to his earlier films are strong and meaningful,*** and he remains one of the most sensuous moviemakers I know of. That the portions of The Tree of Life that speak most clearly to my own experience are, for me, the most effective may be inevitable, but those segments will keep me coming back, and may even provoke me to raise the same questions that Jack raises, even if I reserve the right to arrive at different conclusions. Ultimately, the movie falls short of the greatness it seeks, and yet it achieves something very wonderful.

Chastain with Eppler and Sheridan

*NOTE: The family name is given as O’Brien in press releases and other material surrounding the movie, but I never heard the name (or the names of Jack’s brothers) during the movie itself.

**That said, Malick overdoes the twirling here: both his camera and his cast (especially Chastain and the little boys) spend most of the movie spinning. Like the helix in a strand of DNA. Get it? Get it?!?

***As young Jack flirts with violence and rebellion in Tree of Life, I can almost see the origins of another small-town hood, namely Kit (Martin Sheen) in Malick’s Badlands. As I wondered how far wrong Jack would go, I also wondered whether Malick was trying to raise the stakes by reminding us (or anyway, me) of his earlier movie.


Anonymous said...

The Thin Red Line (1998) is the story of a rifle company on Guadalcanal Island during WWII, based on the novel by James Jones. It is most certainly not "a sweeping epic of the Vietnam War," unless you are reading it as an allegory about Vietnam.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for spotting my error! I've corrected the text.

Anonymous said...

"I can almost see the origins of another small-town hood, namely Kit (Martin Sheen) in Malick’s Badlands. As I wondered how far wrong Jack would go, I also wondered whether Malick was trying to raise the stakes by reminding us (or anyway, me) of his earlier movie."

"Tree of Life" is Badlands II (doesn't the bed where you see the dead bride recalls you of something? who do you think is the women that ressurrects from among the dead?).

Nothing more than that: