“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth;when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”asks God of Job, as Terrence Malick’s newest film begins.
Two and a half hours later, when it came to a close and the screen faded to black, I found it hard to move. It wasn’t out of being overwhelmed by the experience – not that I wasn’t – it was more simply my fear of breaking the stream of ideas that had, over the last two and a half hours, permeated my consciousness. At multiple points during the film, I got the sense of coming close to the brink of some grand revelation, only to have Malick decide he didn’t want to make it that easy for me, and snap away. With the black screen in front of me then, all I wanted was to hold those different frames of thought and force them all together.
It didn’t happen then – and now, more than a week since I’ve seen the film, it hasn’t happened yet. I have one kind of understanding of what it’s all supposed to mean, but I am certain that it remains my understanding alone. The Tree of Life displays a resolute unwillingness to push you into connecting its beautifully composed frames, and the end result I would imagine, is a composite of different interpretations for different viewers, as its grand abstractions veer into some narrow personal alley of nostalgia.
Like any great work of art, don’t you think?
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”
Twenty minutes in, we pull away from stolen moments of suburban life, to the creation of life itself. In images that evoke quiet wonder, we follow the journey of a molten rock that becomes the Earth, right through to the birth of consciousness on the planet.
Malick pays off this narrative gambit with another series of quick sequences that are equally extraordinary: another birth of consciousness, this time of one particular life itself. We move from birth to perception to triumph to jealousy to ennui. At one level, the images that precede might be telling us about the insignificance of human life in the grander scheme of things – but no, I think Malick is going for something more generous here. He’s equating the two miracles instead – the grand triumph that is every single life lived, with the grand triumph that resulted in a speck of consciousness arising in some far corner of the universe.
Large segments of the movie are whispered to us – different characters take up the narrative, all hushed seemingly in prayer. The way of grace and the way of nature are the choices laid down before our protagonist – his mother represents the former, and the sequences with Jessica Chastain are segues of controlled rapture. The way of nature is represented in all its nasty, brutish and short glory by Brad Pitt, and his scenes crackle with misplaced menace. Hunter McCracken is the son who has to chose either path , and in an astonishingly assured performance, he conveys the mix of anger, frustration and guilt largely without speaking.
Prior to The Tree of Lifes’s Palm D’Or win at Cannes, the first screening was met by a balance of jeers and cheers. It’s easy to see how this could be a deeply polarizing movie – all you need to despise it is a healthy dose of cynicism and a lack of faith in Malick’s overall vision.
No, The Tree of Life isn’t for everyone, but then as Roger Ebert would have you know – a movie that’s made for everyone, isn’t particularly for anyone at all.