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Tree Of Life

For years there has been intermittent mention of Terence Malick foregrounding various projects with a ‘big bang’, universal-beginnings prologue. There have been suggestions that such an introduction might’ve formed the prelude to Days Of Heaven; then it seemed likely that such a sequence might be the drum roll that led us into The Thin Red Line.

And, of course, directors, as with all other artists (regardless of register), make the same piece over and again. So slotting it in here seems inevitable, though not particularly forced, as Malick is after the same thing every time, a wonderfully futile aim – namely, an answer to that old maddening query – ‘What’s it all about?’ And you wouldn’t get these elegant, wrenching, majestically stubborn evocations were he any less set on catching nebulae in his net.

Malick, rather than slotting his visual impression of the beginnings of time at the start, elects to bring that in after an opening reel in which we see the initial moments, and aftermath, of the terrible event that the whole enterprise pivots around: the death of the middle of three brothers. Brad Pitt, who easily negotiates the demands of the emotional terrain and looks poisoned and relentlessly abject throughout, quietly devastating the household he rancourously dominates, is the father, rigid of jaw, chin jutting redolent of Brando, and he responds relatively phlegmatically to the tragedy and gives little away. He is an autodidact when it comes to disappointment, which acts as a vindication. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is completely distraught, naturally – though it’s Pitt who here openly represents ‘nature’ as opposed to the ‘grace’ embodied by the sylph-like, inviolably idealised mother, who will not be consoled by Pitt’s learned gesture of manly commiseration. We see, instead, an Irish neighbour observing the sanctitudes demanded by the speculative cohesions of a close-knit 1950s US neighbourhood – ‘god sends flies to wounds he should heal’  – that Pitt has long since relinquished in the name of self-preservation.

Cut to Sean Penn, the eldest brother, now adrift in the abyss of a particularly bleak take on modern-day New York. He’s a haunted, bloodless refugee, morosely mooching about Manhattan, which here feels like some Atlantis dredged from hellish waters and plonked onto a sound stage, skyscrapers as tombstones denoting a mass, insatiable grief. Malick hasn’t filmed a modern cityscape before and you’d be forgiven for supposing that he was exceedingly reluctant on this occasion: he seems allergic, his camera a sickened, errantly swooping bird looking for a quick, nauseated escape from each take. There’s an impressively realised fluid discontent, a seasick sweep, where the air is heavy, every movement an effort of attenuated negotiation; everything has gone wrong. It’s a post-apocalyptic emptiness, a silent pollutive disquiet, and the syllogism is simple: the dead brother as an embodiment of a lost paradise.

This is the numb of a depressive malaise expertly filmed: a bus-stop drifts by from underneath the camera like the withered, forlorn sail of a ship lost in a submerged, long abandoned city we’re traversing for some nexus of meaning or the locus of an unnegotiable grief. Shortly thereafter Malick erases all modern clutter and we’re in the desolate rocky plains of sun-choked desert as a brief coming-up-for-air interlude before we’re again back within the stark, oppressive metropolis, which feels like one giant purgatorial tribute to manifest chaos, the voice of Penn’s dead brother interjecting, inviting suicide, the imploring voice querying a God as to his indifference.

What soon follows is a gloriously mounted sequence of nebulae and universal birth reconstructive impressions dominate in a procession that’s both madly daring and abstract. Atomic, elemental violence ensues; volcanic eruptions offer a primordially blunt sense of that which humans need to understand and forget if they’re to attain the exultant grace the mother figure embodies. We even have a dinosaur – and my interpretation here was that Malick was actually having a bit of fun with both his own reputation for Taoist gestures and with Hollywood convention – that appears poised to instinctively snuff out another injured dinosaur. A seemingly aggressive move emerges as no such thing, a glistening claw caressesing the felled creature before moving on. Pretty unequivocal. Rewriting or speculation? Either way, it’s a wonderfully odd, ballsy, playful moment. From family-centric drama to the beginnings of time and altruistic dinosaurs might’ve been a reckless conceit in the name of easy grandeur, but the magnitude and care Malick imbues every moment of the film with, every frame, allows Tree Of Life to carry such potentially fatal ballast.

‘Where were you?……Why should I be good, if you aren’t?’ 

We then have the beatific, nostalgia-gilded passage of childhood time: a billowing curtain in a summer-sunlit family room; shadowy interiors and a pram silhouette against the opulence of a pristine summer afternoon; a butterfly alighting on mother’s outstretched hand; a montage of defiant trial-and-error lessons inEden. Offsetting this are Pitt’s paternal limitations that want to hasten and invite doom – ‘The world runs on trickery. You want to succeed you can’t be too good.’ – his thwarted, coulda-been-a-contender father taking solace in attenuated certainties with insistently flippant proscriptions as to the ‘naivety’ of the mother. He fast-tracks their masculine dimension as though preparing them for war – or perhaps, preparing them for the hurtling and almost apocryphal rites of passage that Malick will run them through thereafter: the first brush with the dispossessed, the first crush, the first funeral, milestones that pass in a pervasion of dread and deathly languor.   ‘Where were you?……Why should I be good, if you aren’t?’ enters the consciousness of the film, Malick’s trademark disembodied wistful demands drifting into the narrative, though any sense of omniscience gives way to a unified mass of desperate invocations, arriving through a multitude of guises, all as one bereft entity. 

Malick wants to collapse time and yet glorify and preserve specific metonymic moments, as though that act of compression – the fleeting, incomplete snapshots of vast swathes or chronologically diffuse segments of time – is his preferred method of dislocated, panged evocation. He sifts and vanquishes the moments that would never snag on the reticulates of memory and gives you the essence and the pivotal, though idealised, moments that are the iconically expedient means of portrayal, even if that means a shot of mother gliding through the air, defying gravity in a sweep of sudden levitational bliss, is the best shorthand means of addressing you unequivocally as to her abstract meaning. And he does not differentiate between abstract and earthly – they are one and the same. The earth is a place infused with the same wonder that the first spark of the solar system was borne of. We are simply lost, throwing questions into the void. And to him, memory is not just an editor and an embellisher, it’s a reconstitution of raw elements as a process of forming a truth. The emptiness of the universe is not, to Malick, mere grandiloquent context – it’s a yearning, not for past or arrested time, but for an explanation as to why glimpses of heaven can be allowed amidst the maddening rest of existence, in particular the disappointing realities of adulthood.

The Tree Of Life is an exhaustively sumptuous essay on monumental grief, much less problematic when it’s parting the clouds and alluding to mischievous but tantalising memory, which cuts the cords of intellect and throws you into an extraordinarily powerful alternate universe that’s at once uniquely frightening and life-affirming, and we should be extremely glad of it.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 22, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Glad to read your thoughts on this one, Lee. I’ve been anxious for this movie for some time now, pretty sure I won’t be disappointed.

    • July 22, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      Thanks, Trevor. Of all the people I can think of, you may well be the one who will get most out of this. It is extraordinary and endlessly thought-provoking. I can almost guarantee you will enjoy it.

  2. Mary Gilbert
    July 24, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Oh dear Lee and we so often agree……….. a brilliantly written review but I thought the film was a complete load of old twaddle. Yes some of the imagery was beautiful and Brad Pitt showed he could act but poor old Sean Penn – an actor I admire greatly – could only stand and gurn and an awful lot of of the film reminded me of an art house Stand By Me. I’m so tired of dewy eyed Mums too. As for the end – heaven as an Anthony Gormley art installation – puleeze!! You’ve mentioned recently that you’ve become a father for the second time – and many congratulations but perhaps this film touched a chord in you that didn’t in cynical old wrinkly me – my babies left home an awful long time ago. I thought Days of Heaven was a wonderful film but this one lost me completely.

  3. July 25, 2011 at 8:17 am

    Ha! Well, first of all, thank you for your kinds words, much appreciated.

    Yes, this has ‘split them down the middle’ hasn’t it? Sean Penn is certainly asked to do very little…I can’t really argue with your assessment there!

    I think you are right – it struck a chord. Though I don’t remotely think it’s a masterpiece; I’m just glad he’s out there, making things like this. I can now imagine you groaning as Jessica Chastain floats through the air looking dewy….?! I read a review recently where a critic suggests that ‘many critics were sniggering through most of it’. I guess that’s the line he’s walking. And I purposefully crept away from passing comment on the ending, which is certainly the weakest element for me…

    Anyway – have you seen Mildred Pierce yet, Mary?

    • Mary Gilbert
      July 28, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      I haven’t seen Mildred Pierce yet because I haven’t got Sky Atlantic but it’s something I’ll probably buy on DVD eventually despite the very mediocre reviews it’s received because I’m a little bit obsessed with MP having read the book twice and watched the film countless times ( I could probably do a party turn by recounting every scene in the film in order……) It started when I was teaching Film Noir and decided to add MP to the classic repertoire because of its noirish influences. After finding the beginning a little slow my students quickly became absorbed in the story and any scene with Mildred and Veda was greeted with cheers and whistles. Watching the film so many times I began to see several flaws in the plot but applauded its pace and pizazz. Apart from Crawford and Blyth I love the performances of Jack Carson and Eve Arden. Jack Carson as Wally Feay steals every scene he’s in and his characterisation seems utterly modern even though the film was made over seventy years ago. I don’t know who’s playing Wally in the new version but he couldn’t possibly be as good as Carson. ( Incidentally the actor who played Bert Pierce only died last year and I believe Veda/ Ann Blyth is still alive. Hers was a very fine performance but her career fizzled out subsequently). Kate Winslett versus Joan Crawford? No competition.

      (There’s a very critical review of Tree of Man in the LRB by Michael Wood which I read this morning though he liked bits of it as I did too).

  4. July 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Well, I’m not going to argue with your Winslet v Crawford point! She’s good in it, I’d say, but seems to have two or three very definitive acting conceits at her disposal. Well juggled this can be enough, but you become slightly worn out watching her. Frown. Winsomeness usurped by frown. And tentatively enamoured.

    I’m now eager to watch the original! Maybe a quiz later…?

    I will read the Wood review. Jason Solomons – bit of a luvvie – must have offered up the most ambivalent review of a film I’ve seen for quite some time. And tends to sit on the fence with non-commital averrals as to it being ‘extraordinary’ and ‘bold’ etc.

  5. August 19, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Your blog has gone quiet. Is everything okay? I demand more awesome film reviews dammit!!!

    • August 19, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      Tom, cheers for the kind words. Much appreciated! I will have a couple of reviews up in the next few days, two young children and other coalescent distractions blah blah excuse excuse…but Biutiful at least posted by midweek. He says. No really.

  6. August 20, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    I’m torn on this film. I likely will watch it, but I have a distinct feeling I’m going to hate it.

    Still, better that than indifference.

    A shame I didn’t catch it in the cinema really. My tv is solid, but it’s not wide screen or anything. I fear some of the impact may be lost with a home viewing.

  7. September 2, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Max, apologies for the belated response – I rather fear you will hate this. I don’t know anyone personally that likes the film, to be honest. So I hope I’m wrong! It’s overblown. I liked it. What can I say…?

  8. leroyhunter
    November 23, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    I liked it! I went to see it twice!
    I just wished there was…less of it, somehow.

    Malick seems to have run wild since this was made: he’s got another one in the bag and two on the go, if what I read is accurate.

    • November 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      I quite agree, though I kind of like that the whole unwieldy thing is out there annoying a lot of people…

      Yes, Malick has the Affleck one wrapped and is busy with the two you mention: where has this urge suddenly come from? I thought he mightn’t bother again after The New World…and now he can’t stop churning ’em out. Just one more as good as Badlands or Days of Heaven, please….

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