Terrence Malick is the most intuitive, the most blissed-out of American moviemakers. Let Martin Scorsese fixate on his gangsters and obsessives, let Woody Allen sink ever deeper into wryness and worry, while Spike Lee and Oliver Stone pursue the elusive goddess of justice. Malick will go his own dawdling way (only five films in thirty-eight years) fueled by dreams—the dreams we all carry in our heads, composed of memory shards, ambitions, speculations, and notions of how we fit into the scheme of things.

It is this vision of people as dream-vessels that prompted Malick to portray the mass murderer of Badlands (1973) as a romantic who considers himself a knight errant and child of nature, even as he guns down innocent victims; to filter the violent adventures of fugitives from justice in Days of Heaven (1978) through the myth-making mind of a little girl; to render the agonized anticipations of World War II soldiers on the brink of Guadalcanal as a network of murmured streams of consciousness on the soundtrack of The Thin Red Line (1998); and to transform (disastrously, in my view) the traditional story of Pocahontas and John Smith into a vague meditation on intercultural perceptions in The New World (2005).

While almost all American directors labor over storyboards to determine what shots must be completed on which date so that schedules and budgets won’t be violated, Malick, the anti–J. J. Abrams, broods over a set-up for hours, then knocks off for the day because the mood or light seems a bit off, telling his actors that they will “revisit” the scene later (according to Nick Nolte, who turned in one of his best performances in The Thin Red Line). Critic David Thomson got it right when he wrote that Days of Heaven “was as blithe and self-sufficient as a painting labored over in an attic.” But, like a painter with a strong talent for draftsmanship, Malick the director labors best when Malick the writer turns in a solid script. His superbly written Badlands and Days of Heaven were brooding yet coherent, contemplative but never listless. The Thin Red Line was drawn from a gritty James Jones novel that Malick’s dreaminess could infiltrate with fascinating if not quite successful results. But The New World, not even half-baked as a screenplay, floated off into a New Age cloud cuckooland. And now, The Tree of Life arrives, dreamy indeed, gripping, continually teetering on the verge of the inchoate, without quite falling in.

As in The Thin Red Line, we hear thoughts on the soundtrack, questions asked of God by Jack, probably a successful architect (professions are vague in this movie) who is tormented by the death of his younger brother, probably in the Vietnam War (timelines are also vague here), and the memories of being harshly treated by his father. He asks of his Creator, “Was I false to you?” “How did you come to us?” “Did you know?” And many other queries that can be subsumed under the larger question, Why does humankind suffer?

The initial twenty minutes of Tree focus on the sorrow caused by the brother’s death and constitute a dirge-like prelude. Malick’s staging (the parents photographed from the rear as they slowly crumble under the weight of the news), the spare use of dialogue, the mournful music, and the late-afternoon lighting cast a melancholy spell that puts us inside the family’s grief.

But they hardly prepare us for what follows. For next we are whisked back to the dawn of creation as the director visualizes what I took to be the Big Bang. Explosions, lava flowing, water boiling, landmasses shifting, and (skipping eons) dinosaurs walking. All very impressive in themselves but how does this sequence address the initial questions about human suffering? Is Malick merely indicating that pain is at one with all physical change and that, just as lava flows and landmasses heave and shatter, individuals must suffer and break for future life to go on? Surely that’s so unexceptionable an idea that we don’t need a prehistoric flashback to drive it home. More startling for me was the moment a dinosaur pinned down a smaller one but then disdained killing it and walked away. Does this imply that compassion may not be an invention of the human race, that it is inherent in nature? But did the beast actually feel compassion or simply follow whim? Is mercy as serendipitous as death?

Then back we go to Jack’s family, but now it is the 1950s in a Texas town and we are witnessing Jack’s childhood memories—splinters of memory really. Here the director and cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki are at their best, magically conveying the Eden of infancy. The wonders of life as seen by a toddler—the beautiful blur of a butterfly’s wings, the vast expanse of a front lawn as a baby’s spongy legs try to negotiate it, the way sunlight can make a curled leaf look as solid as a seashell, the fairy-tale scariness of a flight of steps going up to...what?—all this is accomplished with a cinematic mastery not seen for a long time in American moviemaking. And not since Fellini’s 8 1/2 has any director captured the way the adult mind replays childhood memories as winged visions. Like Fellini, Malick accomplishes this with floating, sometimes streaking camerawork, dialogue fragments, elliptical editing, and plenty of music (much of it from Bedrˇich Smetana’s Moldau).

Almost equally good is the expulsion from Eden. As his infancy turns into boyhood, Jack collides with his father, a man balked in his musical and scientific ambitions (an abandoned career as a pianist, inventions with patent problems) who takes it out on his children, yet continues to sue for their love. Brad Pitt gives the performance of his career so far, with a willingness and ability to slip into another’s identity that he hasn’t shown since his quietly frightening turn as the killer in Kalifornia (1993). Without fuss Pitt fully conveys both the father’s bullheadedness and his starved sensitivity. And Malick’s use of silence impregnated with resentment demonstrates how menacing a mere family dinner can be.

Coming after the infancy sequence in which both parents were archetypes of unstinting parental love, the later family scenes—showing how the father’s anger shatters domestic happiness—not only shut Jack out of Eden but shift the entire film from lyrical memory to the everyday world of patchy reality. A poem has turned into a novel and Malick quite rightly modulates into realism: more dialogue, less music, greater linearity in the editing. But this introduces a problem. For while the father’s flaws and virtues are portrayed with novelistic solidity, the mother remains in the realm of archetype. She is Goodness, Patience, Loving Kindness. She even floats in the air in one expressionistic moment. Daddy is a man but Mommy is an angel. Early on we heard her murmur about “the way of nature” (bending life to your will) and “the way of grace” (love and the appreciation of life’s gifts); clearly the mother embodies the latter way. But, given all her grace, shouldn’t she follow the film’s segue into realism and become a real woman? (Jack comes to reproach her for not completely siding with him against the father, but it is as if he were reproaching his guardian angel for not hovering over him. The angel remains an angel.) Jessica Chastain, a fetching strawberry blonde with a soft, expressive face, is often riveting but her character seems to function on a different plane from Pitt’s.

Nevertheless, as Jack sinks into brooding and mischief, the movie does take on an increasingly realistic texture never devoid of poetry. In fact, the last third of the movie strongly recalls not Fellini but the James Agee of A Death in the Family, for its pace is (as Dwight Macdonald described his friend’s novel) “circular, ruminative, unhurried.” Even those of us who had happy childhoods will recognize in Jack’s meanderings the way an American middle-class childhood, simultaneously privileged and neurotic, so often produces an adult who is at best philosophical, at worst self-infatuated.

Only in its last fifteen-minute sequence did The Tree of Life lose my admiration. The adult Jack (Sean Penn) walks on a beach of the spirit, passes through an empty doorframe to attain (I presume) spiritual growth, ambles beside all the people of his life, living and dead, and embraces his loved ones. Yes, it’s as tooth-achingly corny as that—Giorgio di Chirico imagery undermined by a Dr. Phil patness.

There’s one problem throughout. Malick’s headiest enigmas are undercut by very practical, irritating questions. Why are Jack and the doomed son portrayed with sufficient vividness while the third son is such a nonentity that, even after two viewings, I can’t remember his face? The back of his head is more memorable because half his hair has been shaved. Why? An accident? An operation? The father’s spirit is virtually broken when his company shifts him to another job he says “nobody wants.” But ten years later the family is living in a comfortable house and is apparently flourishing. What kind of downturn in fortune is this? And since the brother was killed at the age of nineteen (with Jack being about twenty-two), why is it that Jack accepts God’s mysterious ways only by the time he’s fiftyish? To say that time heals all wounds would be a cop-out. The spiritual recovery is so gaudily pictured that its catalyst cries out for dramatization. What scenes are missing here?

Obviously, Terrence Malick isn’t pretending to answer with finality the questions his soundtrack poses at the start of the movie. Though once a philosophy teacher at MIT, he knows that a gulf separates the aims of the philosopher from those of the artist. A great maker of images and a flawed but powerful dramatist, Malick embeds us in the sort of life experiences that give rise to such questions. He induces in the viewer the sort of compassion Dickens evoked when he had Scrooge’s nephew say of people at Yuletide that they could “think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” I would have a hard time respecting anyone who accepted this movie in toto, pronouncing every lacuna a spur to deep thought (dinner-party chitchat, more likely). On the other hand, I don’t think I could love anybody who shrugged off The Tree of Life as a pretentious mess.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2011-08-12 issue: View Contents
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