The Tree of Life: A Waco Episcopalian’s Version of the Sistine Chapel

The movie industry cares only about money, not art. Right? Yet Terrence Malick’s four-decade-long career demonstrates how much money and talent film folk will lavish on an occasional prodigy.

The exquisite middle section of the 67-year-old director’s new movie, The Tree of Life, an autobiographical memoir of his adolescence in 1950s Waco, Texas, finally fulfills the hopes Hollywood has invested in Malick since his memorable 1973 debut, Badlands, featuring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a thrill-kill couple.

Malick is a Red State Coleridge, a philosopher-poet of the oil patch. He is the son of an Illinois small-town girl and a Chaldean Christian petroleum geologist (thus, the titular reference to the Garden of Eden). He grew up in Texas and Oklahoma working on farms and oilfields in the summer and playing high-school football in the fall. Malick developed a rapturous love of nature, what Brad Pitt’s character in The Tree of Life calls an awareness of “the glory all around.” Malick graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a philosophy degree. In 1969, Northwestern University Press published his translation of Martin Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons.

“Malick is a Red State Coleridge, a philosopher-poet of the oil patch.”

In other words, Malick is just all-around better than most people. Industry types have always treated him as a genius, despite his meager box-office track record.

After Badlands, Malick delivered one of the prettiest (if dullest) films ever, Days of Heaven (1978). Malick’s ineffable imagery embodied Heidegger’s idea of “illumined, radiant self-manifestation” better than perhaps Heidegger deserved.

Malick then disappeared for a couple of decades, but the money men eventually tracked him down. Celebrities volunteered in droves to play bit parts in his 1998 Guadalcanal war movie The Thin Red Line. Malick deleted most of the star turns and action, delivering 170 minutes of the breeze blowing through exquisitely backlit tall grass while voiceovers ponder the meaning of life. The Academy still gave it Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations.

The New World, a 2005 retelling of the Pocahontas legend that kept getting distracted by wildlife documentary footage, was somewhat less reverently received.

Not having liked a Malick movie in 38 years, I wasn’t terribly optimistic about The Tree of Life. Yet the central 90 minutes are superb. It is filmed in the fragmentary mode of Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. Dialogue and exposition (and even plot) are minimized. Scenes seem to start randomly, and you have to figure out for yourself what’s going on.

Yet the seemingly careless shots of three young brothers’ daily lives snare images of indelible beauty. As Pitt explained at Cannes, Malick is “like a guy with a big butterfly net, waiting for a moment of truth to go by.” Pitt plays an inventor who had to give up his dreams of being a classical concert pianist to support his three sons and lovely young wife (Jessica Chastain, who appears gawky in still photos but looks like a pre-Raphaelite Madonna here).

If you want to show the younger generation why it was more fun to grow up free-range, before upper-middle-class children were constantly chauffeured to self-improvement activities, The Tree of Life is the film.

The cinematography is by Mexico City cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki, responsible for the innovative, free-floating long takes that overwhelmed 2006’s Children of Men. Here his technique is less obtrusive. He keeps his lens at the young brothers’ eye level as they wander the woods and goof off in their spacious backyard. At first, the camerawork seems casual in the contemporary quasi-documentary style, but the composition and lighting are monumental.

If you like this style (and I do, very much), The Tree of Life might call to mind other works about growing up such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Parts of it are that good.

Unfortunately, Malick wasn’t content with a small masterpiece. He’s wrapped his little movie in grandiose footage originally intended for an IMAX science documentary on the birth of the universe. To devise the astrophysical and microbial footage about life’s origins, Malick called back to moviemaking Douglas Trumbull, Stanley Kubrick’s special-effects man on 2001. Malick might more resemble, however, another Christian artist with a superb eye for natural beauty, Kubrick’s space-drama rival, Andrei Tarkovsky, director of the 1972 Soviet sci-fi epic Solaris.

Worse, Malick inserts his usual voiceovers, in which the characters whisper questions to God such as “Who are we to you?” and “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” The Tree of Life turns into a Waco Episcopalian’s version of the Sistine Chapel. Not even Malick can pull that off.

 

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