Advocates for The Tree of Life, writer-director Terrence Malick’s fifth film in nearly forty years, claim for it a visionary quality. They must have a shabby sense of vision. Grafting onto a rudimentary family melodrama, set (like Malick’s childhood) around early-1950s Waco, Texas, an awesome account of the origin of the universe and the evolution of species, noting the degree to which a grown man remains influenced by the parents who raised him, is an academic thing, not any “vision” that the artist has actually experienced—a construction, not a holistic, or even partial, perception. The whole thing reeks of artifice. Advocates, along with some detractors, furthermore, seem to agree that the film is mostly non-narrative. This is hilariously wrong; rarely has a film been more overstuffed with plot—but, given the fancy and pretentious way the film is presented, this plot is obscured at almost every turn. If it weren’t for the bleedingly personal nature of the material, which includes a version of the youthful death of one of Malick’s own brothers, the viewer might mistake this film for an elaborate joke.
Still, there are many good moments in the film; one of the best shows a dinosaur poised to dine on another dinosaur, which is lying on the ground. When it notes that the latter is sick, the upright beast decides against chowing down. But what motivates this reconsideration? Compassion for the fallen creature, or at least a sense of sporting fairness? Self-interest, as ingesting the sick animal might threaten the upright beast’s own health? Ambiguity, indeed, is one of the film’s strong suits.
The O’Briens consist of Father, Mother, and their three sons. Voiceovers jump from one character to another; Mother, for instance, speaks of two paths one can follow in life: that of Grace, where one is unceasingly loving, unselfish, sacrificing oneself for others, which, as it happens, describes her; the path of Nature, on which one pursues only self-interest, which by appearances describes Father. Father counsels Jack, his eldest son: “The world proceeds by trickery. You cannot succeed if you’re too good.” “Too good” is how he thinks of his wife, whom he lambasts for “turning [his] own sons against [him].” Indeed, their sons become the field of battle as each parent attempts to claim their souls. Mother is effortlessly kind but something of a creep—and Malick mocks her spirituality by showing her floating beneath a tree (Nature); Father is an abusive bully, especially towards Jack—but Malick makes plain that his hardened nature is the result of abdicating musical ambition for the sake of providing for his family. Malick sets up a schematic dichotomy regarding the parents, which he proceeds to toss into breezes of ambiguity. Like Nature, each parent is good/bad, unselfish/selfish, with Mother’s “grace” comporting selfconsciously with her virtuous self-image.
The best performance comes from Sean Penn, who plays a middle-aged Jack. (The worst comes from hopeless Brad Pitt, whose Father is especially unconvincing when, having lost his job, he collapses into something akin to humility.) “How did I lose you?” Jack asks in the film’s most poignant instance of voiceover—and this, too, is ambiguous. Is he referring to his brother who, at 19, may have committed suicide in a road “accident”? Or is he referring to his childhood self? A summary reverie, of forgiveness and reconciliation, reunites Jack with his parents, siblings and childhood self.
Two other aspects of the film move and enchant me. I have seen no other film in which the power of touch—the loving laying on of gentle hands, including between young brothers—is more, well, touchingly conveyed. The other positive aspect is the film’s incorporation of moments from a gorgeous piece of animation: the untitled Opus 161 (1965-66) by Thomas Wilfred, featuring a shape-changing, mysterious orange light enrobed in silence, with which Malick dramatizes the expanding primordial cosmos and finds the color key for subsequent images, such as an orange street lamp and the orange-seeming lights inside the O’Brien home when viewed from outside, in long-shot, in the deep, dark night. This is lovely, haunting stuff suggesting an unusual depth of passing—passed—human time correlative to grown Jack’s fleeting childhood memories,
All these virtues, and more, however, weigh little against this film’s monumental faults. Without historical or sociopolitical context, Father’s brooding misfortunes reflect little on his damaging odyssey, his exclusion from America’s postwar exultation. Father’s personal story is given no chance to resonate beyond his situation, leaving us with nothing but the dregs of soap opera. Add to this the disjointed nature of Malick’s film, the unfortunate memories it conjures of Hollywood’s sentimental wartime-homefront The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown, 1943), and the inept acting of Hunter McCracken as young Jack, initially eleven years old, and one perceives something of the range of this film’s failures. Malick and McCracken could not have handled more clumsily Jack’s shift from Mother’s sphere of influence to Father’s sphere of influence, which even Penn’s deft, knowing portrait of the lingering aftermath for Jack cannot hope to redeem.
Malick won for this film the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
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