It’s very rare that I go to the cinema and witness a dozen people walking out within the first half an hour of the movie. I’ve sat through some truly awful Hollywood films in the past and never seen anyone walk out. The opposite is usually the case – most cinema-goers are generally quite happy watching mainstream crap without feeling cheated by the patronizing narratives, cliched acting and gormless eye candy special effects. Perhaps it’s this expectation of not being challenged by movies that caused so many people to walk out of The Tree of Life, a film of almost unprecedented scope and ambition which works both as a stream of consciousness reflection on childhood and family life and a vast, brooding Impressionistic exploration of the totality of existence. Not exactly switch your brain off entertainment – it’s easy to understand why this abstract approach to cinema is, in the words of one critic, “too paralyzingly high-minded to connect with audiences.”
Terence Malick is perhaps the most reclusive director working in Hollywood. His films have left an indelible mark on the history of cinema. Including his directorial debut Badlands in 1973 Malick has directed just five films, yet this small body of work contains more grand ideas and profound insights than most directors can only dream of achieving. Not without reason is he discussed in the same breath as Stanley Kubrick; The Tree of Life shares a number of similarities with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, from it’s epic scale covering the origins of creation and the human condition through to its “pure cinema” stylistic leanings, eschewing conventional cinematic approaches to character development and narrative structure and favouring the juxtaposition of imagery and themes through montage-style editing and sound design. Add to that scenes of the vast expanses of the universe, truly stunning sequences crafted by Douglas Trumbell, who also created effects for 2001.
There are common themes and motifs which run through Malick’s films: man’s place in nature; the loss of innocence in a brutal and violent world; the yearning for meaning to life and the search for spiritual truth. Badlands sees the young teenager Holly (Sissy Spacek) on the run with her murderous boyfriend Kit (Martin Sheen), who’s brutal acts of violence are starkly juxtaposed by Holly’s narration, full of naive observations on love and a romanticized, delusional understanding of the situation she is in. The New World explored similar themes on a far grander scale, taking the Pochahontas story and crafting an elegaic tale of the founding of Jamestown by British colonialists and the meeting of civilizations. Here, nature itself plays a central role in the movie, with frequent lingering and drifting shots of meadows, forests and river forming the core of the film’s sumptuous visuals. As with his exceptional war movie The Thin Red Line, the natural world forms the backdrop to violent battle scenes – the imagery a stark and powerful comment man’s role in the process of destruction and rebirth.
Terrence Malick’s films are polarizing, to say the least. Critics are frequently divided into “love” or “hate” camps and The Tree of Life is no exception – the premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 ended with applause and boos in equal measure (although it went on to win the Palme d’Or, indicating that overall the reception was more than positive). Reading reviews and audience comments it’s almost impossible to find a middle ground – some critics lambast it as pretentious, long-winded and even banal, while others consider it to be a masterpiece, an ambitious achievement, a triumph of “pure” cinema.
The Tree of Life is perhaps Malick’s most personal work, with dramatic elements such as the loss of the brother/son which starts the movie off reportedly based on his own life. Marcel Proust wrote in In Search of Lost Time, “How paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory…The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” As with Proust’s novel, The Tree of Life deals with childhood memories triggered by sensation, the taste of Madeleine cake which prompts Marcel’s journey into his past in In Search of Lost Time replaced with Sean Penn’s character witnessing a tree being planted in the courtyard outside his office window, setting off an onslaught of memories and feelings. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography captures this reflective mood perfectly; dialogue scenes are few and far between, just as our own memories of childhood conversations are vague at best; our own recollections are as abstract and sensory as the montage-like sequences which dominate The Tree of Life.
Some have criticized The Tree of Life for being overtly religious, accusing Malick of loading the movie with Christian symbolism. While there is an element of truth to this criticism – the choice between Grace and Nature, for instance, or the visualization of the afterlife – The Tree of Life never descends into dogmatic preaching or proselytizing. The spiritual and metaphysical themes have a universal aspect to them. Besides, given the context and setting – Waco, Texas in the 1950s – it seems absurd to level criticisms against a film for containing elements of Christianity given the community in which the story takes place, and the contrasting attitudes of the mother and father (excellent performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) function as archetypal parents, cold and authoritarian set against gentle and compassionate; the Old Testament and the New; patriarchy versus matriarchy.
In his review of The New World for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “It’s difficult to write a great short poem. It’s difficult to write a great long novel. But to write a great long poem that’s the size of a great long novel – one that makes sense, doesn’t flag and is exponentially better than the short poem or the long novel ever would have been – that’s almost impossible. Malick did it. With images.” In this respect The Tree of Life is perhaps Terrence Malick’s most successful work yet. And if you disagree, you can always walk out of the cinema.