After depicting a real-life '50s killing spree (Badlands), pre-Depression farm workers (Days of Heaven), World War II (The Thin Red Line), and early America (The New World), "reclusive," "genius" filmmaker Terrence Malick's fifth film in 38 years, The Tree of Life, is at once his most personal — an intimate, autobiographical portrait of nuclear-family life in 1950s Waco, Texas — and most universal — imagining no less than the birth of the universe.
After winning the Palme d'Or at last month's Cannes Film Festival, Malick's film — budgeted at more than $30 million, starring Brad Pitt, and featuring the work of brilliant technicians such as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Malick's own The New World) and special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) — has been trickling into theaters around the country, and it's a far bigger, grander spectacle than any other summer film.
Abjuring conventional narrative for modes of reverie and meditation, The Tree of Life is a film designed to reconcile science and faith. It opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ..."), ends with a vision of heaven, and implicitly directs Malick's trademark whispery, philosophical voiceovers to God ("How did you come to me? In what shape?"). But its ecstatic vision of the Big Bang and subsequent activity — the formation of the Earth, the origin of life at a cellular level, the Ice Age, etc. — is scientifically sound. The result feels something like a backward-looking, transcendentalist response to Stanley Kubrick's cool, cerebral, forward-looking 2001.
Malick's film — taking in so much at a surprisingly tidy 138 minutes — incorporates four main spheres of action and at least as many "movements," though the compartments overlap to varying degrees. The most prominent of these spheres, in terms of screen time at least, takes place in Waco in the 1950s, where the film follows a boy named Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as an adolescent) from birth through puberty, alongside his parents (Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and first one, then two younger brothers. We learn early on that one of Jack's brothers will die at age 19, and that sense of eventual loss colors everything.
So much of the Waco material is a flood of quotidian fragments: a mother blowing on a wound, a child running through a house, sparklers in the dark, mosquito trucks in the twilight, a mother's good-morning kiss, a ball repeatedly thrown onto a roof and caught.
Eventually, this prelapsarian state is penetrated by knowledge — the first, disorienting reckoning with human frailty, the awareness of sex and death, the impulse to destroy or rebel. And the children grow up in a state of oscillation between a demanding but loving father (his advice: "It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you're good, people will take advantage of you.") and an angelic, idealized mother (hers: "Take care of each other. Love everyone. Forgive.").
What Malick achieves in these passages is astonishing: nothing less than a cinematic hymn to the sensorial and emotional sovereignty of childhood — at once familiar and profound. Malick risks self-parody here — a few hours after I saw The Tree of Life, I saw an Intel commercial that reminded me of it — but the imagery is so evocative and the emotions so intense that the film washes over those concerns.
This material is couched in terms of memory, with Sean Penn as an adult Jack, an architect adrift in present-day Houston. The Penn material isn't compelling on its own but serves at least two purposes: adding perspective to the Waco material and allowing a visual juxtaposition between the modern skyscrapers of Houston and the ever-present trees of Jack's childhood memories.
The tension in that comparison is mirrored throughout the film. In the juxtaposition of parents, Malick portrays nature vs. grace, peace vs. tumult, leaping from the micro of a family unit to the macro of the Big Bang and its repercussions, showing similar tensions at the cosmic level — in the audacious, crazy, beautiful "origin of life" sequence that compresses billions of years into a roughly 20-minute cinematic operetta (yes, including dinosaurs) that's part painterly effects and part CGI, more a realistic-poetic evocation of Hubble photography than a typical Hollywood spectacle.
The Tree of Life is shorter on humor than anything I'd feel comfortable calling a masterpiece, and how well Malick lands his ending may depend on the religious bent of the viewer. The final sphere of the film moves away from science into pure faith and speculation — bringing characters together on a tidal plain for a would-be emotional climax that felt — to me — banal and a little dippy.
But The Tree of Life encompasses a level of artistic ambition increasingly rare in modern American movies — Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood might be the closest recent comparison, and I'm not sure it's all that close. This is a massive achievement. An imperfect film, perhaps, but an utterly essential one.
Opening Friday, June 24th