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.
Movies like Sucker Punch are suffocating because there’s no fresh air in them, just an accretion of pop-cultural dust; but this film, set in ’50s suburbia—Malick was born in 1943—and yet devoid of any such buildup, seems almost as phony. The O’Briens never went to movies? Never read a book or listened to a piece of music written after 1900? Didn’t even own a TV? It may be intended to represent the idealized American past; it’s an attempt at timelessness, which is an artist’s prerogative. But Jack is posited as a mid-century Huck Finn: an impossibility for almost any kid who wasn’t raised in Winter’s Bone. In Malick’s first feature, Badlands (1973), a touching study of preliterate romanticism, the killers tried to flee from society in a tree-house Neverland, but their paradise was inevitably lost. So why is Malick now applying that idyll to his own past? He once said of that film that he “tried to keep the 1950s to a bare minimum. … I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island. I hoped this would … take a little of the sharpness out of the violence, but still keep its dreamy quality.” His purposes in The Tree of Life may be different—the lovers on the lam in Badlands were older than Jack, but, fundamentally, they were children, too—but he’s lost his sense of irony. The very thing he once critiqued has now corrupted his memory; his critique has become his method. I don’t want to condemn the movie for going beyond the stranglehold of pop; Certified Copy functioned pretty well without it. But its absence here vexes me. (It seems almost as if he’s too good for the banal topicalities of life on Earth; but maybe I’m just being P.M.S.-y.) With the exception of Badlands and The Thin Red Line, Malick has stuck with pre-modern times; his style, responsible for some of the most awe-inspiring encounters ever on film, in The New World, is better off staying there.
The false start of the brother’s suicide is a mistake the movie never completely rectifies; since the character remains a veritable nonentity for most of the film’s duration, the event seems almost to have been exploited for poignancy. Malick’s use of a Biblical epigram, like his trademark sweet-nothings whispered in voiceover, are debatable effects—some get high on the incense he burns, even when I choke on it—but this psychological misstep cannot be swept under any impressionistic rug. The movie does improve, however, about two-thirds in, when the characters solidify as people; Malick displays a flair for drama that’s unprecedented in his oeuvre, and Brad Pitt explodes into life as a serious actor, bursting any expectations left over from his Benjamin Button or Jesse James. During the mnemonic rotogravure of the middle section, he’s stuck doing the strong-but-fair song-and-dance; but then, during a domestic dispute—the youngest son tells his ornery father to “be quiet”—Pitt shows the fairness that keeps O’Brien’s strength in check. He absorbs his wife’s blows—she’s frustrated, and knows she’s the real target of his animus—and then mollifies both her anger and his own, in something like a classical, tragic, deeply understanding embrace: one of the most poetic images in the movie. (Curiously enough, this stupendous bit of direction has been executed in rather traditional continuity editing.) The other standout, when Malick actually deals with Jack and his brother, lives up to the film’s ambitions; there’s heat, and tension, as history freezes for a moment before Jack betrays his brother’s trust—it isn’t a real pause in time, necessarily, but hesitation imposed by hindsight. And when we see the counterpoint, of the two boys embracing one another, wet with tears, no context is needed. Malick has beaded a string of memories here that doesn’t need to be chronological; the ordering device is a combination of nostalgia, love, and regret—the hazy sheath of childhood sufferance.
Those few scenes were almost enough to burn the twaddle out of my memory; it gives credence to the inscription on Malick’s cloak. (If one were to picture the director, instead, in my metaphorical sweatpants—well, a whole lot more would burn in one’s mind.) But I said that he both is and isn’t the man behind the curtain; the man who isn’t is the artist, and the man who is is the mystifier, a role he may take on unconsciously. I don’t think it’s the height of his aspirations that chafes me raw, but, rather, the blatant lack of perspective—the tendency to make a normal childhood, his own childhood, the stuff of a fairy tale, replete with the “magic” his apostles are so happy to supply. (Seeing everything as sacred is easy; being able to discern what is from the walloping mass of what isn’t is the task of an artist.) This poet, philosopher, recluse, Rhodes scholar is probably so deep that, beside him, I’m a kiddie pool. There is magic in his work, but there’s also crap—what others might refer to as “universal themes.” Is he expressing his love for, and descrying the divine in, the “ordinary” or merely the conventional, the archetypal? Is he expressing the abstract irrefutabilities espied in his work by the literati or is he just luring them down the primrose path of thought experimentation? (Maybe, one could counter, inspiring such examination is a virtue in itself; reading some of the critics who sing Malick’s body electric is as, or more, edifying than watching his film.) He asks the BIG questions, but doesn’t always frame them—just draws attention to the fact that he’s asking them. Beauty plus benignity equals A-R-T of the first degree. No wonder it only happens about five times every 40 years! God should thank Himself, however, that Malick sometimes remembers where He really is: in the details.