Terrence Malick’s long-delayed, longer-in-the-works The Tree of Life begins and ends with an aura of orange celestial light hovering in the center of the screen, and what comes in between can perhaps best be described as Malick’s response to the millennia-spanning ellipsis in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—the one that takes us from ancient pre-history to the space age in a single cut. Malick’s film, too, offers us a crash course in the origin of the species and journeys from the earth to the moon and back again, but for most of its running time it narrows its focus to the latter half of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st, finding in the story of a single American family a rather astonishing metaphor for the rapidly evolving human family and those grand, cosmic questions of existence that remain with us, unwavering.
This is, I think, the film Malick has been building up to over the course of his highly uneven career, the one in which the tension in his work between man and nature, the physical and the metaphysical, sits in perfect balance, and where Malick’s philosophizing—which in his last picture, The New World, bordered on the fatally naive—feels sage-like, prophetic. It is clearly a movie Malick has been contemplating for quite some time: in the late seventies, in the wake of Days of Heaven, he began pre-production on a project then known as Q, which was reported to involve a contemporary story set in the Middle East, and a prologue set during prehistoric times. “Imagine this surrealistic reptilian world,” the visual effects designer Richard Taylor, who worked on the project, told journalist Joe Gillis for a 1995 Los Angeles magazine story, before going on to describe something close to the lengthy evolution sequence that now appears at Tree of Life’s half-hour mark: “There is this creature, a Minotaur, sleeping in the water, and he dreams about the evolution of the universe, seeing the earth change from a sea of magma to the earliest vegetation, to the dinosaurs, and then to man. It would be this metaphorical story that moves you through time.”
Of the five feature films Malick has now made, Tree also seems his most personal. The family at the center of the story—a father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain) and three young boys living in Waco, Texas in the fifties—bears more than a passing resemblance to the one Malick grew up in during the same years in Austin. Where Malick’s own father, Emil, was a geologist employed by Phillips Petroleum, the Pitt character in Tree of Life appears to be an engineer of some sort, hammering away at patents that have yet to make him rich. And like the real-life Malick clan, the family on screen, who appear to be called the O’Briens, are marked by the kind of tragedy that tests the faith of even the most devout among us. If I speak in the conditional, it is because, as in most Malick films, so little in Tree of Life (down to the names of characters and where and when the film takes place) is explicitly stated. Rather, the film rushes at us in fragments of memory—some jagged and piercing, some smooth and expansive—recalled over an ocean of time.
The man doing the remembering is the family’s eldest son (played as an adult by Sean Penn), an architect who works in the modern urban jungle of glass and steel—filmed by Malick in distorted wide angles—and lives in a sleek modernist house that seems nearly as unhappy as the man himself. What he recalls is a youth spent in a bygone Middle America, where a gentle breeze is forever blowing through white linen and sun-browned children live out eternal summers on bikes and rope swings. It is a simpler time, perhaps, a time of Norman Rockwell images, but filtered through the prism of mortality—specifically, the death of a younger brother, at the age of 19. (Malick’s own youngest brother, an aspiring guitarist, committed suicide in the late sixties.) It is also the time of Richard Yates, and of an American dream that, as dreams are wont to do, hovers out of reach of the dreamers.
Those scenes, like most of Tree of Life, play out with scarcely any spoken dialogue—just passages of whispered narration and much classical music (Bach, Holst, Goreckí, Mahler) laid over rapturously lyrical images that express more than words ever could. In particular, Malick recalls childhood, and a child’s way of seeing and feeling, with acute intensity: the first blush of pain, the mysterious lengthening of a shadow in the sun, the idealization of our parents as perfect people, the realization that all things must die. Like 2001, Tree of Life is a symphonic film that surges and swells, returns to favorite motifs, and—even by Malick’s esoteric standards—has more in common with music, painting, poetry, and certain strains of avant-garde filmmaking than it does with mainstream narrative cinema. “When I talk about ‘poetic cinema,’ I don't mean that it has something to do with poetry,” the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami told me in a 2001 interview. “I'm talking about the cinema being like poetry, possessing the complicated qualities of poetry, and also having the vast potential of poetry.” If Malick were inclined to give interviews, he might say something similar. Where his previous films all, to one extent or another, felt marooned between the prosaic and the poetic, he here gives himself fully over to the latter, and the result feels like the purest expression of himself—like the fulfillment of Robert Bresson’s mandate, written in his indelible Notes on the Cinematographer, to “make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
Because Tree of Life opens with a quote from Job and climaxes with a vision of a possible afterlife in which we all gather at the river, some will inevitably suggest—if they haven’t already—that the film is the work of a true believer. But to these eyes, Malick remains every inch a seeker still on his journey, grappling with possibilities but committing to nothing. If we are, as Woody Allen recently suggested (and Nietzsche a century before), no more than “specks of light in an eternal void,” in Tree of Life you feel Malick grasping at those flickering particles, turning them to and fro, examining their elemental structure. You don’t watch this movie so much as you surrender to it. As the hours passed, I found myself thinking a lot about my own late father, a hard-working man who, on some fundamental level, never lived up to his own idea of what he should have been. And I thought about other people who have come and gone, about the certainties of youth disproved by age and experience, about the ceaseless desire of man to impose order and meaning on chaos, and about those artists, from Michelangelo to Malick, who have sought throughout the centuries to touch the hand of God.
In the hothouse of Cannes, where Malick delivered exactly what the festival seemed to be craving—an authentic event movie—Tree of Life marks the first time, in my nine years of coming here, that I have heard a film booed by the international press corps before it was even fully over. Meanwhile, Malick himself, like Jean-Luc Godard last year, has been vilified by some journalists for failing to attend his own press conference (though he did attend the official Tree of Life gala on Monday evening). Of course, cynicism in the face of sincerity like Malick’s is always an easy pose to adopt, and sometimes it’s warranted. (See: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which features a literal, sap-giving “tree of life.”) As for the list of great films greeted with incomprehension or outright hostility upon their entrances into the world, it is far too long to reproduce here; certainly, 2001 would be on it. “Is there nothing that does not pass away?” a pastor asks his parishioners in one scene from Malick’s film. The answer, of course, is art like this.
Scott Foundas is the Associate Director of Programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a contributing editor to Film Comment magazine.