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The Tree of Life

Director Terrence Malick returns

Jun. 13, 2011
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After directing a pair of great films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), Terrence Malick made like J.D. Salinger and disappeared. But unlike the novelist, Malick eventually resurfaced, releasing The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). His mysterious life, abstention from celebrity culture and refusal to abide by the strictures of the entertainment industry only burnished his legendary status as an artist of uncompromising vision.

A highlight of this year's Cannes festival, Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, makes absolutely no compromises to the expectations of nowadays. It adamantly refuses to explain itself and forces viewers to connect the dots and trace the patterns as a wholly different form of filmmaking unfolds before their eyes. The one familiar reference might be Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Tree of Life is not science fiction, but like 2001, it develops a story asking big questions against the vast canvas of evolution and the cosmos. Malick goes further, recreating the Big Bang and the coalescing of the firmament and the deep, the emergence of life from water and the age of dinosaurs. The reptiles subject each other to senseless violence much like Kubrick's apes.

And while 2001 was organized in linear fashion, even when bounding across millions of years, Malick dispenses with any commonplace notion of time. In The Tree of Life, everything and everyone coexists in one eternal moment. Decades and eons dissolve and re-coagulate.

The core of the story, set in 1950s lower-middle-class America, could have been reduced to a conventional Hollywood screenplay. Brad Pitt plays the dutiful father but strict disciplinarian of three boys, one of who dies at age 19. Malick never shows the son's death, but only his funeral, the sorrow and recriminations in the aftermath and the gathering tension between father and son beforehand—with events arranged in no ordinary sequence. Malick spent three years editing The Tree of Life and the time was well spent. The film could be viewed as a masterful series of edits forming a story both elusive and allusive. Sean Penn plays one of the dead boy's brothers in years to come, a disgruntled professional man distracted at conferences and living increasingly on a desert shore of his imagination, where distinctions between the living and the dead are immaterial.

The Roman Catholic Church is a crucial element in scenes of the family during the '50s; the unresolvable paradox of Job winds through much of The Tree of Life. But the father's beliefs have less to do with Jesus Christ than the self-made gospel of Henry Ford. "You have control over your own destiny," he tells his boys, even as destiny keeps eluding his grasp. He is angry at the unseen forces setting the limits, and his anger erupts at the dinner table. In contrast, the mother (Jessica Chastain) is often as spectral as an angel glimpsed in the candlelit shadows of a church. In a voice-over she muses that grace is a state of acceptance transcending its opposite force, nature, "which wants to have its way." Her husband is lacking in grace.

The Tree of Life
contains many voices but little actual dialogue. The mother's prayers after her boy's death are heard in front of lucid photography of the cosmos, the glowing spiral nebula and clouds of stars suggesting infinity. In the endlessness of a dynamic, growing universe, our trials might seem insignificant. In The Tree of Life, however, individual human lives are honored and made to feel important, even if they transpire against the incomprehensible immensity of the universe—or God itself.n


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