The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Tree of Life

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article The Tree of Life, and perhaps Terrence Malick’s work in general, is particularly suited to the dual-review Alternate Takes approach. The initial perplexity of his films, the wealth of imagery, the stunning scope - all need time to be taken in, and the challenges they make need to be addressed. A moment is needed, a long moment of reflection and meditation. Although Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) were greeted by a generally positive critical reception on their release, Malick’s later films arrive under the weight of excessive expectation, generated first of all by the recognition garnered by those early masterpieces, as well as by the Pynchon-esque silence and invisibility of the artist and the ample time that surrounds and to some extent frames each feature. I recall The Guardian’s review of The Thin Red Line (1998), which was printed with an accompanying five question marks instead of five stars. With each new Malick there is the disconcerting feeling for many that it’s either a masterpiece (five question marks, not two or three) or some kind of massive bamboozling fraud (question marks rather than stars). The Tree of Life looks set to be perhaps the most divisive film yet, following a Cannes premiere which was greeted with both boos and applause. Even the most positive reviews, and I am firmly lodged in that camp, will admit that this film is not, nor should it perhaps be, for everybody.

But I am going to champion this film, and in doing so I need to pull a thorn from the paw of the lion. That thorn is a weasel word that should be scrubbed from our critical vocabulary: the word ‘pretentious’. Say it’s fake, say it’s wrong, say it’s untrue, or a failure, but ‘pretentious’ is a word which seeks to clip wings, to drag down, to undermine. Pretentious comes from pretend, which originally means ‘to lay claim to’. A pretence is a false claim. So what does The Tree of Life lay claim to, and is this claim demonstrably false or dishonest?

First of all, it lays claim to regarding one’s own life as an opportunity for serious investigation. It takes itself incredibly seriously. There is almost no irony and the humour that exists in the film comes from the characters rather than the film-maker. Malick is a director who not only doesn’t blink before the grand questions of existence, he also refuses to wink. This may well be his most autobiographical film. Malick is from Waco, Texas, where the film is set. The age of the children are roughly contemporary to his age. But even without knowing this, the intricate portrayal of childhood is so real it feels as if lived experience breathes through it. The complexity of the family dynamic is subtly and movingly portrayed. The mother who is a little too good; the father who feels that nothing will ever be quite good enough; the boys who are there in all the mad uncontrollable energy of youth, nasty and cruel one moment, joyful and loving the next. This brought me back to my childhood. Okay, a small village outside of Barrow-in-Furness is not Waco, Texas, but I know the feeling when the street is the world and a trip to town is a weekly treat, but an off-putting and slightly scary one. Seen from the point of view of Jack, the eldest boy, (a fantastic performance, or even non-performance by Hunter McCracken) our world expands with his. We have seen the beginning of the Universe, but for Jack, the house, the garden, the street, then the neighbourhood and the river, all of that is his universe. The big band might be rendered beautifully but the image of his birth as that of a boy swimming up out of the door of an underwater bedroom is just as magnificent.

As an adult (Sean Penn), Jack is a mournful man, more successful than his father ever was but perhaps more profoundly disappointed, thinking back to where it all went wrong. Although Penn’s character seems to have suffered from the editing process - the IMDB credits include a son, a wife (who we see) and an ex-wife (who we don’t) - in a way all we need is a reminder that everything we are watching, we are watching through the lens of death and loss. The almost constantly moving camera and the editing, even when the film begins to coalesce, gives us the feeling that the images are slipping from us and are ungraspable, constantly moving away. The knowledge that the middle son will die (albeit at nineteen and outside of the film) colours everything. There is a moment when he is sitting on the step playing his guitar and the sunshine falls on him and he almost disappears in the light, which is both moving and strangely joyful. The middle son is better, less cruel, more bravely defiant, less petulant, more trusting and less confused than Jack. Jack’s memories are not just tinged with loss, but also guilt and regret.

Much of this regret is based on his troubled relationship with his father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt). At first, we see O’Brien as a petty domestic tyrant, overly-strict, but occasionally emotionally needy. He is the obvious parental bad cop to the mother’s unconditionally loving good cop. And yet as the film progresses we see more complexity in O’Brien as a man who is trying and failing, who is still to some extent growing and maturing even as his son does. Pitt’s performance and his casting are here touched with genius. He brings a little boy lost aspect that we can always spy through Mr. O’Brien’s posturing and bullshit. Even at his strictest, there are flickers of doubt, moments of regret and despair even as he does his best. Jack may not have been a little boy before and so everything is new to him, but his father has never been a father before and the film is generous in seeing the stumbling of a man who is also making it up as he goes along.

The film also lays claim to telling a story in a very different way. In this it represent a radical departure from conventional cinematic story-telling. The structure is as radical as Gasper Noè’s Enter the Void (2009), but whereas Noè seeks authenticity in extremity and at the margins, Malick focuses on the ordinary in an extraordinary way. And yet, despite his radicalism in respect to his peers, Malick is a remarkably consistent film-maker. Images run through every single one of his films: we always have a fire, usually a house fire; we often have a home invasion/intrusion; we always have a river; there is always a birdcage. Always. It’s as if Malick has his own vocabulary of images which he places in every film. He also achieves a stylistic similarity, and use of voiceover - from the conventional first person narrative of Sissy Spacek in Badlands to the conversational irony of Days of Heaven and the later more choral works of The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005). Equally, we always have an observation of the natural world. His landscapes include an awareness of a huge looming sky, changing light (especially the signature magic hour photography) and the effect of the wind. The tight nugget-like epics of his first two films, both of which screen at under 100 minutes, give way to the more expansive, ambitious and less focussed narrative style of the later films, but there is a visible progression which has modified as much because of the changing demands of his subject matter (the Guadalcanal campaign, the founding of the first American colonies) as due to Malick’s artistic maturation. To claim that this consistency means the Malick parodies himself is bogus. His style, in being so identifiable, will always be vulnerable to parody and his films in their straight-faced and openhearted sincerity could easily be destroyed by one well-placed guffaw - but would we really want to? And why?

The most obviously radical departure comes in the sequences which open and close the film. Here we leave all theatrical conventions aside and are given simply images, and music, and sound. We are given vision. This has already been described as symphonic and it almost demands another kind of approach to watching a film. Instead of following a plot, we are (hopefully) involved in the images: struck, provoked, sometimes mesmerised by them.

Finally - and here is where the pretentiousness jibe is most obviously focussed - the film lays claim to a certain profundity of thought. It seizes on the big questions of what Douglas Adams called life, the universe and everything. It is concerned with the hocus-pocus of religiosity/spiritualism that in our postmodern era of secular doubt is usually considered to be best avoided. Perhaps I should confess straight away: I am an atheist, but I’m a religious atheist, which means that, rather than solving in one unbelieving sweep all those questions of existence, death and meaning, my atheism actually (for me) makes all those questions much more vital and interesting.

Malick’s grasping for the metaphysical is done through an intense relationship to the physical. And so in The Tree of Life, we have sunlight and wind, grass and clouds, and we have the creation of the Universe and the death of the Universe as miraculous, if not necessarily a miracle. We have wonder at life, at the very ordinary bizarreness of being us, now, and knowing that there was a time when we weren’t, and there will be a time when we won’t be. Malick’s cinema participates in this wonder, but also interrogates it. His cosmic visions don’t vouchsafe the existence of a benevolent God. In fact, in the boiling sun, the lumbering asteroid, the twirling DNA, there is inhuman indifference, an amoral process. The church is a place to dress up, a place of music, but it is also a repressive place that Jack rebels against.

Near the end of the film, the characters are reunited on the shore of a possible afterlife. It feels like the actors of a small, elemental but everyday drama have suddenly come together to take their final bow, and to offer each other a little congratulation, comfort and forgiveness. They are surprised to find that their small drama has in fact been produced on epic proportions. It was a moment I found intensely moving.

But then again, I’ve always been a bit pretentious.

This Alternate Take was published on May 21, 2011.

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