I admit that I haven’t yet seen The Tree of Life, the new movie from writer, director and heavyweight champion recluse Terrence Malick. Across the sea, Hollywood superstars, studio moguls, and writers working for magazines with bigger budgets than The Texas Observer got their chance last week at the Cannes Film Festival. It had been a year since The Tree of Life was supposed to screen at Cannes, and the judges showed their gratitude for the opportunity they thought might never come by awarding the movie the Palme D’Or. Malick, being Malick, responded to this honor by not showing up to accept the award, not turning up at any of the screenings, and generally remaining loyal to the mystical principles of total inscrutability and invisibility, much like his movies. As for us devoted Malick fans in America: We continue to wait. And stew. And die inside.
Still, anyone who loves the movies of Terrence Malick learned a long time ago to be patient. Devotees are like mendicant monks, trained in the holy art of waiting and hoping. We live for scraps and survive on rumors. For five years, those rumors have concerned a movie that may or may not be about a family growing up near a giant, mystical tree. It might star Heath Ledger or Brad Pitt or Sean Penn or Mel Gibson or all or none of the above. It was going to be released two years ago. It was supposed to screen last month in London. It has dinosaurs in it.
The trailer was released in December, and all of our questions were … barely answered at all. It was confirmed that Pitt and Penn were starring, and that at least part of the film appeared to be about a family in a small town. As for the rest of it, who could say? The jumping flames and crashing waves, the lugubrious voice-overs about being guided “to the end of time,” the shots of prehistoric sandscapes and cosmic vapors: Any guess was as good as another. More clues trickled in over the next months from studios, marketing firms and leaked clips: The film was about a young boy caught between his parents’ dueling philosophies of life—one based in love and mercy, the other in struggle and self-preservation—who grows up to be a man (played by Penn) trying to reclaim a sense of joy and wonder.
For all the questions surrounding The Tree of Life, it could turn out to be Malick’s most personal, most autobiographical and most revealing film, the closest we’ll ever get to knowing a man who has made an art out of not being known. Like the young hero of the film, Malick grew up in small-town Texas in the 1950s, and rumor has it that episodes from his own life inspired the story. If that’s true, Malick, having pondered the mysteries of human existence by way of modern warfare in the The Thin Red Line and the destruction of Eden in The New World, may now be diving into subject matter both greater and smaller—the creation of the cosmos and his own evolution.
For years, Malick has argued that those two things, the individual and the infinite, are the same, that everything is connected, that, as a soldier in The Thin Red Line says, “We all got one big soul.” With its spinning planets, supernovae, cosmic vapors, familial discontent, palpable nostalgia, kaleidoscopes made of stained glass, calls to love and, yes, dinosaurs, The Tree of Life appears to be tying everything together. It could turn out to be the culmination of Malick’s aesthetic philosophy, untamed by time, space, terrestriality, linearity or even logic. The film might reach for, and grasp, some part of infinity. It could be the movie Malick has been threatening to make ever since he turned a crime spree into a metaphor for the fall of man in Badlands nearly 40 years ago. Or it could be the point at which the director’s post-Emersonian mysticism and naturalistic visual grandeur finally spill over into absurdity. In that event, die-hard Malick fans like me will shake our heads in bewilderment and wave a once-great artist goodbye.
After the movie opens in Texas on June 3, check back for Rosenblatt’s review.