Terrence Malick’s movies are often called “magical,” and that’s typically not applied in the pejorative; but his sway has elements that Lord Voldemort, his unlikely box-office competitor, might be jealous of. “He is trying to film God,” Mick LaSalle believes; he’s “attempting … to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives,” Roger Ebert opines; “The Tree of Life ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them,” says A.O. Scott; “Should the film have been titled ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Malick’?” the Movie Monster mumbles. Clearly, the film strikes a chord. But if it makes one feel as if criticizing it were child abuse, well, someone’s waving a wand behind the scenes: Voldemort—the Koch brothers perhaps. Actually, the man behind this curtain both is and isn’t Malick, obscured by his cloak of public invisibility: “Genius” is inscribed on it, the way “Diva” is sewn on sweatpants booties.
That said, I do not disbelieve claims that he is ingenuous, guileless, unpretentious, ambitious, or talented; I do not believe that The Tree of Life is a bad movie; but I also do not believe its Creator is infallible. First off, there’s a reason this film invites such anvils of praise as “confirmation that cinema can aspire to art.” His “art” is writ so large it can be seen from space: and, indeed, he chucks us at the second star to his right, and goes straight on till the first-ever morning. In case you haven’t heard, Malick follows his opening shots of grown-up Jack (Sean Penn) daydreaming in a Dallas office, during the present day, with the reactions of Jack’s parents to his brother’s death, circa the 1960s—the cause of death is undisclosed, though Malick had a younger brother who is said to have taken his own life in 1968—and then the director hops back a bit further: to the Big Bang. The ensuing light show was designed in part by Douglas Trumbull, who, as a young man, went Beyond the Infinite with Kubrick in 2001. It’s a striking montage: Like the waves breaking on themselves in Jack’s memory, there’s an ebb and flow to the cosmic matter and, later, the lava, churning out civilization’s lifeblood. It’s an illustration of time. But it doesn’t have an inch more depth than Duncan Jones’s essay on ephemerality, scrawled in editing, in Source Code. This sequence was intended for another film—one that Malick never got around to making. It shows.
What follows, for quite awhile, is equally blunt “art,” although some of the images and gestures lodge in your mind like morsels of food lodge in your teeth. Though set in Texas, where Malick grew up, it never seems very hot; for the interiors, it’s as if the curtains veiled a full moon that’s parked itself next door. The camera is a character, the buoyant head atop an invisible child’s shoulders. Essentially, The Tree of Life is a portrait of the artist as a sensitive kid; and young Jack (Hunter McCracken, fantastic) isn’t much different than other sensitive kids. The O’Brien family is mildly dysfunctional—a headache rather than a heart attack—with a childlike Earth-mother (ginger-haired Jessica Chastain), representing “grace,” and a melancholic tough-guy dad (Brad Pitt), representing “nature,” as the two poles between which Jack is torn. And though it could be said that this lengthy midsection, by way of the director’s impressionistic editing, is true to the processes of memory, it struck me as a best-of reel of every early memory Malick ever wanted to sanctify on film; and it’s sanctified, all right, by the Mahler and the Brahms that exult in the imagery. But it’s like a Hallmark card written by someone with direly serious literary ambitions: The story doesn’t live up to the style, whether you call it a story or not. (Though the story does catch up eventually.) Malick’s camera gapes at adults as if they were skyscrapers, and skyscrapers as if they were adults; this glabrous equipoise is genuinely childlike. But when exaltation is the default mode, each scene—each memory—carries the same weight as the last. The style says: Everything is beautiful. Which is to say, it says nothing.
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