The Tree of Life: Brilliant and Frustrating


Somewhere amid all the whispering voice-overs about the impermanence of existence and the eternal struggle for salvation, somewhere behind the lengthy nature opera chronicling the evolution of the universe from the first protozoa in the miasmic magma of the early volcano blasts to the birth of the first CGI dinosaur, somewhere lost among the choirs and organs trumpeting the ocean-side redemption of a biblically mopey Sean Penn — somewhere in the middle of Terrence Malick’s long-awaited, Palme D’or-winning The Tree of Life lives one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, fighting to be free.

That movie – which may need its own, slightly less bloated title – is about a family. No fuss, no muss, no dinosaurs. And it starts just where it should, with a birth. Not of the universe but of a son, Jack, the first child of a young couple in small-town 1950s Texas. At first Jack’s life is an idyll, filled with summer days spent lolling happily in the grass with his mother (played by newcomer Jessica Chastain). Soon two younger brothers come along, and Jack’s life grows into a paradise of camaraderie and exploration. This part of The Tree of Life aches with nostalgic sentiment, boundless hope, musical rhapsody, and magic-hour visual grandeur, everything Malick excels at as a filmmaker.

Unfortunately for Jack and his mother and his two brothers, something of a monster lives among them, the boys’ father (Brad Pitt), whose disappointments and self-loathing are manifested in acts of physical and emotional abuse against his sons. In all my years watching movies I don’t think I’ve ever seen a subtler, more psychologically attuned depiction of the slow corruption parental violence will wreak on a child. To watch Jack grow into his own anger and disillusionment is like watching a natural landscape slowly deteriorate in the face of human development. His loss of innocence is like another fall of man, and Malick makes us feel the tragedy as a criminal, even sinful, darkening of the spirit.

If only the rest of The Tree of Life were so nuanced. Instead, for the other two-thirds of his movie, Malick, the writer/director of flawed near-masterpieces like Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, gives in completely to all his most frustrating impulses, the ones devoted Malick followers like myself have spent years making excuses for, zoning out during, and accepting as tests of our faith – I’m talking about the humorless theologizing, the self-important philosophical narration, the strained religious imagery, the overwhelming need to make something significant our of every …  single … damn … moment. Also, the dinosaurs.

I’m thinking maybe Terrence Malick should make more movies. Instead of waiting years, even decades, between projects, he should take the Woody Allen approach and release a new film every year. Maybe if he did that, he wouldn’t feel such a heavy responsibility to explain the mysteries of the universe every time he turned on the cameras, a responsibility not even a visual and tonal genius can handle. Interestingly, the rumor is that the director’s next movie is already shot. Of course, any real Malick fan knows not to believe a new Malick movie actually exists until he’s in a theatre watching it, popcorn in hand. But still, word of a new movie from the Thomas Pynchon of the multiplex this quick is fantastic news, not just for us but for him.

The other rumor, however, is that this new movie stars Ben Affleck.

Oh, Terrence Malick (Oh, my soul!), you do enjoy testing my devotion,