The tweets and Facebook postings started appearing within seconds of the conclusion of the first showing of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, on the morning of May 16. First came word that there had been a chorus of boos from the upper balcony of the screening room. That was followed immediately by assurances that the booing had been answered from other corners of the auditorium with just-as-vigorous applause. By the time I saw the movie at a press screening in Dallas later the same day, the Village Voice had already blogged that it was a “train wreck,” while Film Comment’s Scott Foundas argued that it was “a symphonic film that surges and swells.” Early the next morning, the Los Angeles Times posted an article on its website titled “How Did the Reaction to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life Get So Complicated?”—a curious thing to ask of a film that, by then, was still nearly two weeks away from release and had been seen by only a few thousand film-industry professionals and journalists. A few days after that, the Cannes jury, headed this year by Robert De Niro, weighed in on the debate, bestowing upon The Tree of Life the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize.
Exhausted yet? If ever there was an artist who feeds into the ethos of the Internet age—the gossip that gets reported as news, the sparks of hype that get fanned and flamed—it’s the Austin-based Malick, a notoriously press-shy director who spends years in seclusion working on his strange, elusive films. The Tree of Life was shot in Smithville and a number of other Texas locations in 2008. In the ensuing three years, Malick edited and tinkered and added elaborate digital effects, as speculation about the project turned into a kind of Twitterverse cottage industry. Would it have dinosaurs, as had been rumored on some blogs? Would stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn end up on the cutting room floor, the way Adrien Brody famously did in Malick’s The Thin Red Line? When the hell was this thing going to finally be released?
And yet, if ever there was an artist whose work so aggressively resists the ethos of our need-to-know-right-now age, well, that would be Malick too. Flush with dreamy longueurs, biblical references, and, yes, two oddly adorable digital dinosaurs, The Tree of Life—which opened in New York and Los Angeles in late May and expands across the country this month—is alternately bizarre and banal, transfixing and turgid. Here’s the difficult, decidedly unfashionable truth about the movie: It may take decades before we’re able to figure out if it’s a masterpiece, a turkey, or (as I suspect after just one viewing) a little of both.
The Tree of Life begins with a quote from the Book of Job and a shot of a glowing orange light that (if I read this correctly) is Malick’s visual evocation of the big bang. How’s that for portentous? From there, we’re launched into a sunlight-suffused house in Waco, circa the fifties, where a couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive a telegram telling them that one of their sons has been killed. Next we’re in a sunlight-suffused apartment in present-day Houston, where a bedraggled-looking architect (Sean Penn) appears to be having an especially bad day. The constantly roving camera glides around corners and through doorways, lending an even greater sense of unease to the already hallucinatory feel of things. But just when we think we’re getting a handle on all this, Malick sends us back to the beginnings of the universe. For nearly twenty minutes, we watch cosmos expanding, cells multiplying, sharks skulking through bloodied waters, and dinosaurs roaming the planet as classical music plays on the sound track.
Pardon my philistinism, but seriously: Is this guy for real? Malick has long had a tendency toward grandiloquence, ever since his first two features, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). Why express an idea in simple terms when you can convey it with cryptic shots of sun filtering through tall stalks of unmowed grass? More recently, in The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), he has become fond of having characters whisper in voice-over as images that don’t quite match the voice-over flash before us—a device employed with even more freewheeling abandon in The Tree of Life. What makes this so exasperating, at least as far as this new movie is concerned, is that when you strip away all the poetic musings about God and faith and the question of grace versus nature, you realize that Malick’s central theme is kind of mushy, even dunderheaded. In its second, marginally less elliptical hour, The Tree of Life reveals itself to be the story of a rebellious boy named Jack (Hunter McCracken) bucking up against an unforgiving ex-military father (Pitt), an iteration of the Field of Dreams male weepie about a son who never saw eye to eye with dad. (The film’s one truly cringe-inducing sequence features the father forcing Jack to box with him: a cinematic symbol, since time immemorial, of “Daddy didn’t know how to love me.”) In lieu of playing Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” on the sound track, Malick simply pumps up the Brahms and Bach and Berlioz and hopes we won’t call bullshit on him.
These considerable gripes aside, though, I’m hesitant to do as those critics at Cannes did and slap a label on a movie that so deftly slips out of your grasp every time you think you’re catching on—and seems to be coming from a deeply sincere place in Malick’s soul. The director grew up in Waco in the fifties, and his relationship with his father is said to have been tense; by all evidence, The Tree of Life appears to be Malick’s cosmic-scaled version of the autobiographical bildungsroman. Penn plays Jack as an adult, an anguished man dwarfed by the cold glass skyscrapers of Houston. The plot, such as it is, represents his Proustian memories of childhood—and, indeed, as many movies as have tried to evoke memory on film, I can’t think of another one that does it with such quicksilver grace. There are images here—Jack and his friends attaching a frog to a bottle rocket and launching it into the sky, Jack and his brothers startled by the sudden appearance of a group of disfigured and handicapped people in their town—that cut right to the core of childhood and all its spookiness, sadness, and sudden bursts of cruelty.
My gut tells me that The Tree of Life ultimately comes up short; the climactic scene, set on a sunlight-suffused beach that (I’m guessing) is supposed to be heaven, feels especially misjudged. I’m also inclined to think that Malick works better when he has some kind of fact-based story and structure that he can’t drift too far away from, à la Badlands (about a pair of young outlaws) and The New World (about John Smith and Pocahontas). Then again, maybe the point of The Tree of Life is to explore the push and pull of our own biographies: how we’re constantly trying to forget the most painful chapters of childhood even as we’re doomed to revisit and remember them forever. Honestly, I’m not sure, and I think it will take a few more viewings of this daunting, demanding, often daffy movie to figure it out. Tell you this much, though: As soon as I come up with an answer, I’ll post it straightaway to my Twitter feed.