Terrence Malick is probably the biggest name director whose movies you’ve never seen. His is the kind of name filmy types like to toss into conversations as a test to see how deep your knowledge of movies runs. Having made just five movies since 1973 he is less productive than a four toed sloth, but as a chef I know used to say, “do you want it fast, or do you want it good?”
His latest, “Tree of Life,” is a star studded look at life, death and the birth of the universe. He compresses the history of the world, mankind and the lives of a Waco, Texas family into two hours and twenty minutes. This coming of age story—or more rightly a coming of the ages story—is impressionistic storytelling, nonlinear, non-story based but not nonsensical.
It’s a deeply spiritual movie—from the Job quote that begins the story to the Amen chorus at the end—that asks the big questions—Why do awful things happen? Are we always in God’s hands?—often in reverential, whispered tones. Style wise Malick constantly tilts the camera upwards, keeping an eye on the heavens.
This is not light summer entertainment. In fact, some will think this is pretentious twaddle, while others will see a movie that replaces traditional storytelling with deep seated feelings.
I’m leaning ever so slightly toward the pretentious twaddle camp, certainly in the film’s first hour, where Malick inserts a long sequence detailing the abovementioned birth of the universe. Faces and lifelike shapes appear in the primordial goop that makes up much of this extended creation scene, and by the time the dinosaurs appear it is hard to remember this is a movie starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.
What does it mean? Not sure. Narratively it adds little to the film and as artful as it may be it feels too new agey by half. But as pretentious twaddle goes, it’s really beautiful. If this movie was made in 1968 it would have been a “head” movie, delighting stoners at midnight screenings.
But it’s not 1968, so luckily the first forty minutes gives way to a slightly less impressionistic mid section, based mostly in the family home of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three kids. It’s a feel, a hazy look at growing up.
Pitt impresses as the upwardly mobile, but thin skinned tyrant father; a man who thought he did everything right only to discover his instincts were off. There’s also a surprising character arc in a movie that is more about intuition than arcs. The family story is effective, its Malick’s struggle to place it within a much larger context and the constantly shifting points of view that obscure the film’s main point, a questioning of faith in the light of great personal tragedy.
Obscured though the point may be, this is one seriously beautiful film. Malick has his characters talk about living in a state of grace—love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light—and it’s not hard to imagine that is an echo of his filmmaking ethos. He finds splendor in the things we don’t see onscreen very often anymore, a pure shot of fireflies flittering in the darkness, landscapes and nature, unadulterated, left alone to speak for themselves.
Critics will use words like textural, nuanced to describe “Tree of Life.” I’ll add a few more. Heartfelt, willfully obscure and intriguing.