dir: Terrence Malick
It’s a beautiful film, trying to encompass in its scope, the entire world, the entire human experience, the entire universe. With such mighty ambitions, how can Malick not fall short? How could any of us not fall short?
The fact that the scope of his reach and the magnitude of his grasp are so close to each other means that when one exceeds the other, it doesn’t represent the failure that it would for other filmmakers. There are very few filmmakers (with money) like Malick, and his films are their own genre. As such they’re only really comparable to each other, not as much with other films.
You can only really know if you can enjoy a Malick film by having watched a few, and having immersed yourself in them, know what to expect. They are not conventional, they don’t follow a pattern, they don’t unfold in a conventional manner, and, mostly, they’re overflowing with beautiful cinematography, and the vast majority of the thoughts and intentions of the characters are delivered through internal monologues (voiceover).
So the following, endemic to his films, might not be for you: hours and hours of sporadically edited nature footage, interspersed with people walking around in a daze, with people whispering drippy philosophical bullshit like ‘where do you end, and I begin? How can a just god keep us apart, here, so distant from the apex of humanity’s innocence? I saw you today in the outstretched hand of a beggar, and I cried. And where’s that ham sandwich I ordered half an hour ago? Surely it can’t take them that long to heat up a fucking ham sandwich and make a goddamn coffee, can it?”
Truth be told, the first few times I saw Malick films, or Malick’s films even, I really could not get into them. I found the pacing excruciating, the lack of acting infuriating (they’re not required to act that much, just stand around and run their fingers through tall grass or lovingly stroke leaves or the equivalent), and the whole endeavour an exercise in pretentious futility. In fact, upon seeing The Thin Red Line the first time, I thought that not only was it terrible, but that it actively made me angry.
No, I wasn’t expecting or wanting Saving Private Ryan, but, at the very least, I wasn’t expecting endless, endless shots of Queensland palm fronds and fern leaves, and Miranda fucking Otto fumbling about in her sun dress or swinging by on a swing.
I actively hated that film. The thing is, though, I didn’t get it at the time, and I didn’t know what Malick was doing, or why. So all the voiceover stuff seemed superfluous and pretentious, and the deliberate move away from a regular structure frustrated the fuck out of me.
Once I understood what he was doing, to the limited extent that I can say I understand what he does, well, then it began to make a little bit more sense to me. I didn’t understand initially that the voiceovers and the nature shots are the point, that his intent is always discursive and philosophical, rather than literal and narrative, and that the story he’s really telling is not the one the characters are actually articulating through dialogue. After all, that dialogue and acting stuff is such a hassle.
Tree of Life is about nothing so special as God, death, the creation of the universe, and our meagre place in it, all filtered through the experience of growing up in Waco, Texas, in the 1960s. It takes literally the accusation in the Book of Job where a complaining member of the faithful is admonished to consider, despite all the bad shit that’s befallen him, that what are his complaints compared to the majesty of Creation? And furthermore, God intones, where the fuck were you when I was creating the universe, hanging the stars in the heavens, and installing poisonous spurs on the hind legs of platypuses? Where were you at the flickering of first light where there had been nothing but darkness prior?
The film begins, and regularly returns to, the image of an abstract flame, flickering lazily into existence, as we jump back and forth through time, and return to this flame. Then, a mother is informed as to the death of her son, perhaps in the 1970s. Perhaps it’s because of Vietnam, I dunno. All I know is that her son was 19 when he died. Na-na-na-na-nineteen nineteen ninetee- nineteen.
The brother of the dead chap, played by Sean Penn, in full-on, confused, mope mode, mourns his brother’s passing, and strides forlornly through well composed architecture. He is an architect himself, and they are a notoriously gloomy bunch independent of family members dying.
An occasion like that, though, prompts, demands reflection. It compels us to question our own mortality, but also what we could have done differently, how events and realities in our childhood shaped us and the people around us, and what prompted a sadistic god to create us in such a flawed fashion in the first place.
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Malick often positions his films as representing the tension between Man in a state of Nature, versus modern monstrous Man who acts in opposition to it, but here he takes a slightly different tack. Sure, there’s a state of nature, but nature itself can be cruel, unfeeling, protean and wild. There’s also the state of grace, from which pours forth the love and compassion that even God doesn’t have for us. It is expressed, naturally, not by God, but by his creations, even us.
In probably the most depressing and, from my perspective, perversely funny sections, a reverend in the pulpit, quoting the Book O’ Job, tells people that even if they’re virtuous, even if they’re devout and holier than thou, bad shit is still going to happen to them. It’s the primary admission that goes against the grain of the rest of the Wishgranter-in-the-Sky stuff that’s central to the delusion requiring our species to follow religions.
Nup, says the Rev: random bad shit can still fuck you up, even if God does like you. As a friend
It’s strange for an ‘ordered’ system like that to allow for the fact that chaos governs the universe, not design. But that’s what the Most Reverend says, depressing those in the congregation, who are depressed already.
It couldn’t be obvious yet, but there is sort-of a main character, and he’s mostly seen as the child Jack (Hunter McCracken). At this stage of the film, by which time all sorts of stuff I can barely begin to describe has happened, and been seen by us, and heard, Jack is depressed because the death of a local boy in the local pool has made him realise his own mortality.
It’s terrible when that happens. It’s the end of childhood for most of us, isn’t it? Until then, Jack has been watching the interplay, the dance, the force of Nature and Grace competing against each other from watching his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) embody both in the most simplistic manner possible.
Good goddamn do they do it well, though. Of course there have been a million books written and films made by people decrying/applauding their own parents, stern or brutish ones at that, but I’ll be damned if Brad Pitt doesn’t heroically manage to make his character a living and breathing one, despite the best efforts of Terrence Malick. Because of the way the director works, because he’s so interested in painting on such a huge impressionistic canvass, because of the way he edits, characters don’t always have the opportunity to become fully formed in his flicks. Pitt does well enough to avoid such a fate. It’s hard for me to say that, because I generally don’t think he can act for shit. He certainly acts for shit here. Wait, that doesn’t make sense. He’s great, no question.
Jack bridles under the stern, Old Testament parenting that his father delivers, but also comes to resent his mother’s gentleness and unconditional love. He sees it as lesser versus the tyrannical strength his father, because he believes his father’s own press about the world, and the qualities needed to get by and triumph.
Of course, the more he resents his father, the more he comes to resemble him, and he acts out at the knowledge that he was created in his father’s image.
His little brother looks on, more like the mother than the father, and naturally the temptation arises to be cruel towards him as well. But in little brother (Laramie Eppler), Jack sees the gentleness of his mother, with the creative drive and ambition of his father, and perhaps, after much awfulness, and the humbling of this family that comes from General Life, that perhaps there is another way to live.
There’s so, so much going on: shown, said, sung, seen. Stuff that, to refer to it out of context would be meaningless to someone who hasn’t seen it, and who is wondering if they want to see it. If I describe the scene involving the volcanic earth cooling billions of years ago, or a dinosaur perhaps displaying grace through mercy, it’s not going to help either way. It’s also not going to make the link on paper that the film makes on screen, between Creation and the personal drama of this family. It also might sound like one is more important that the other, since the visual / aesthetic stuff is so powerful and so overwhelming.
The thing is, though, this is an autobiographical story, to some extent. Malick’s flicks have always been powerful and abstract and gargantuan in effect, but, to my knowledge, there’s never been the personal element to this extent, whereby he’s representing his own father, his own brother, his (idealised) mother, and himself as Jack.
Perhaps, if it wasn’t for the ending, which, I think, is a pretentious wank, and, as such, somewhat unsatisfying, I would be labelling this as Malick’s greatest film. Up until that ending, which is like something out of a Singapore Airlines commercial, I was pretty much entirely consumed by this amazing film. I haven’t had this kind of experience since watching Enter the Void, the strange Gaspar Noe flick set simultaneously in Japan and in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This flick doesn’t have as many blowjobs, though, perhaps not to its detriment.
I was ready for it, I had the time for it, I was in the mood for it, and I deliberately wanted to be subsumed by the experience, and it worked, for me. I never looked at my watch once, but then how many people these days have the time or inclination for something like this?
Very few people, I would imagine. I don’t think the me of twenty or even ten year’s ago could have tolerated this flick, either. I would have been cursing a blue streak at the fucking screen, throwing beer bottles and lit cigarettes at the screen.
The me of now, though, was in the right place for it, and watched this with wonder and awe, something that rarely happens these days. I don’t know if it helps that I watch this as a father as well, seeing the way Jack’s father acts, and dreading that I have the potential to act in the same manner sometimes. It also reminded me of what a prick I was as a son, sometimes with cause, more often without.
And yes, it made me appreciate that there’s grace in the world as well, on top of all the meanness and horror out there and in here; that there are still instances of it, moments, fractions, blinks and thimblefuls, mostly in the eyes and fingertips of those we love.
For that, what do I say to Terrence Malick? I say thank you.
9 times none of my drippy blather really will make this any easier for the rest of you to sit through/endure out of 10
“Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good, when You aren't.” – take that, God – The Tree of Life