Shortly after Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I had an amusing conversation with one of my Christian friends. The buzz coming out of Cannes was that Malick had delivered an overtly Christian film, and if there's one filmmaker who could make a true believer out of me, it's the legendary, decidedly non-prolific creator of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. I basically worship his films, and so my friend told me that if I ever text him “Praise Jesus” or something, then he’ll know the reason why.
The Tree of Life didn't convert me to Christianity, but it reaffirmed my faith in Malick. It's an apotheosis of the themes and filmmaking style he's been developing over the last dozen years or so, the movie he's been building up to since The Thin Red Line, his triumphant, Academy Award-nominated return to the cinema after a 20-year absence. The Thin Red Line is my favorite movie of all time; The Tree of Life is merely one of my favorites. It’s Malick’s most experimental film to date, but I think viewers will find a lot to relate to; it certainly had a profound impact on me.
I'd been waiting almost three years for this to come out, and I'm such a self-conscious person that when I finally sat down to watch it all I could think was, "OMG, I can't believe I'm watching it!" I’ve seen it twice now, and during both viewings I was reminded of Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which discusses Malick's childhood in Waco as the eldest of three brothers and the guilt he felt when one of his siblings – a gifted musician – committed suicide. All of this is included in the film, showing three boys – Jack (Hunter McCracken, who as the eldest is playing Malick's surrogate), R.L. (Laramie Epler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) – growing up in Texas in the 1950s, though the cause of R.L.'s death is never explained. I couldn’t help thinking of Easy Riders whenever Sean Penn appeared as the adult Jack in the film’s sorrowful contemporary scenes, which for me represent the guilt Malick still feels over the death of his younger brother.
"Tell us a story from before we can remember." – R.L., The Tree of Life
As you may have heard, the movie isn't just about Malick's beginnings; it's also about the beginnings of all life on earth. R.L.'s death tests the faith of his mother, Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), and the questions she has for God ("Where were you?" "Why did you take my son?") are answered with a sequence of overpowering beauty that depicts the formation of the universe, from the big bang to a meteor strike that wipes out the dinosaurs. This sequence lasts about 20 minutes and is only a small sample of what Malick has in store for us in his forthcoming Voyage of Time project, which causes me to wonder whether the director has made it his mission in life to make my head explode.
The Tree of Life isn’t the first origin story Malick has told. The New World is a breathtaking vision of the origins of America, specifically the founding of Jamestown. The characters in his movies are constantly asking questions about the origins of people. “Who are you, whom I so faintly hear? Who urge me ever on,” Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) asks near the beginning of The New World. In The Tree of Life, the young Jack exhibits the same kind of curiosity about God and the meaning of life: “Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.” The poetic use of narration in Malick’s films never ceases to enthrall me, but I can see how it could be ridiculed; if his movies were more popular, they could be the subject of a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit.
Some fans have accused Malick of overreaching with this new film, claiming he’s stopped asking questions about God and started giving answers pulled straight out of scripture. When Linda (Linda Manz) in Days of Heaven says “the people who have been good they’re gonna go to heaven and escape all that fire,” you don’t feel you’re being preached to, just like you don’t feel that way when Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) says “the author of all things watches over me” in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit; both lines accurately reflect the time and place in which the characters live. I guess what some fans are saying is that Malick has closed the gap between his personal beliefs (or what they assume to be his beliefs) and those of his characters. After two viewings, I don’t have strong feelings on the subject. As a skeptic/agnostic, I certainly don’t feel alienated by the film, any more than I feel alienated when I look at paintings from the Sistine Chapel.
"Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?" – Dead Japanese soldier, The Thin Red Line
In one of my favorite scenes in The Tree of Life, the boys go on a day trip into town with their mother. They imitate a drunk stumbling across the road, and are visibly shaken when they see a tall man suffering from a debilitating disease. “Can it happen to anyone?” R.L. asks his mother. Later, when a boy drowns in a public swimming pool, the young Jack prays to God: “Was he bad?”
I think this is one of the major breaking points for a lot of people when it comes to faith, the idea that God isn’t there for us when we need to him to be. (It was certainly a breaking point for me.) Early on in the film, we hear Mrs. O’Brien say in voiceover, “The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” People might hear that and accuse Malick of being naïve, but his movies are a lot more skeptical than the quote implies. The three major characters in his films who have chosen the way of grace – Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) in The Thin Red Line, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) in The New World and Mrs. O’Brien in The Tree of Life – are just as susceptible to pain, loss and suffering as anyone else onscreen. In fact, Malick can be very cruel to these characters.
The director doesn’t make it easy to choose the way of grace. Neither does real life, what with The Hangover Part II grossing more than half a billion dollars and The Tree of Life grossing less than $40 million. Prior to the scenes with the adult Jack, Malick had never shown us his view of contemporary life. It's fairly despairing. “The world has gone to the dogs,” Jack says in voiceover. “Greed is everywhere.” I was reminded of the English settlers in The New World chopping down every tree within half a mile to build their fort, walling themselves off from paradise. Four hundred years on, the descendants of those settlers seem about as far as possible from Pocahontas and the Algonquian-speaking Indians, who, as Captain Smith notes, had no words for lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander and forgiveness.
“Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You’ve just got half devil and half angel in you.” – Linda, Days of Heaven
Ever since Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), the outlaw lovers in Badlands, ran away together and “hid in the wilderness down by a river in a grove of cottonwoods,” Malick’s movies have been filled with natural beauty. Trees, birds and other animals figure prominently, as if the director were saying, “These are just as important as the characters.” One of the most beautiful images in Days of Heaven is a time-lapse shot showing a plant sprouting from its seed and reaching towards sunlight. I thought of that shot during the lyrical series of scenes that follows the universe sequence in The Tree of Life, which depicts Jack’s growth from infancy to boyhood.
As the young Jack, newcomer McCracken delivers one of the most remarkable child performances since The Sixth Sense. His scenes were the ones I found most relatable. Jack desperately wants to be like his mom (“Mother. Make me good. Brave,” he whispers in voiceover), but he rebels against his stern, emotionally distant father (Brad Pitt). In the scenes where Jack steals a neighbor lady’s nightgown and ditches the evidence in a river, the movie captures the way you can feel like you're in a trance-like state when you’re a kid and you know you’re doing something wrong. In the middle of a scolding, Jack suddenly hugs his father – not to get out of being punished; it’s more like he’s trying to hold onto something he feels slipping away. All of this brought back vivid memories for me.
Late in the film, Mr. O’Brien reveals himself to be a man of regrets: “I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” This is the most transcendent aspect of Malick’s movies: they notice the glory. A pastoral flashback of Mrs. O’Brien resting her head on her father’s shoulder; the boys’ delight when they find out Mr. O’Brien has gone on a business trip; a magnificently choreographed playground scene, set to “Les Barricades Mysterieuses” by Couperin, with the camera slowly dollying into a sunset – I can’t tell you how much these moments mean to me. Who needs heaven when you’ve got Terrence Malick?