Dir:- Terrence Malick
Starr:- Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Fiona Shaw
I’ve been a staunch advocate of Terrence Malick’s particular brand of idiosyncratic cinematic poetry ever since I first saw the spellbinding Badlands on a Moviedrome screening, aged barely twelve. Even the voiceover overkill on Days of Heaven could not dull the exquisite nature of his visuals. After all isn’t that visual language what cinema is really all about? Well, to some degree I would have to answer in the affirmative, but there is however the small matter of narrative, or story, that needs to be taken into consideration. In The Thin Red Line, Malick’s return to cinema after a near two decade hiatus, Malick seemed to meld his preference for expressionistic use of voiceover, to elliptical, almost poetic turns of phrase, which when married to the sumptuous beauty of his visuals, gave the movie an almost hypnotic quality, allowing the viewer to ruminate over the various strands of Malick’s war/pacifism, action/inaction meditation. Having not seen the intervening movie, The New World, I cannot comment on a continuum in Malick’s work, but what is striking, with the arrival of this Palme d’Or winning fifth film, is just how incapable (or perhaps unconcerned) Malick seems to be with telling a story. This has in turn begun to manifest itself in a series of technical tropes that reoccur in evermore clichéd form in this ‘meditation’ on the very meaning (or experience) of life itself.
Malick has overladen The Tree of Life with pathos, to the point where the bough is ready to break with the load weight of its ‘meaning’. This kind of ballast was sorely lacking from Mike Mills’ recent fluffy confection Beginners. However that movie had something that Malick’s struggles to locate, character(s) an audience can bond with, relate to and eventually care about. With The Tree of Life Malick seems to have set himself the task of describing the experiences of a life visually, whilst showing how insignificant such a life is when seen from the long perspective of an interrelated universe. It makes for some spectacular visual juxtapositions (the veins and cells of a living body, against the spindly branches and falling leaves of a tree) and some truly awful metaphorical sequences (the dinosaur encounter, the sunflower ending), that in the end offer up some food for thought, but very little in the way of substantial emotional connection. Perhaps the movies biggest failing is that its apparent ‘big-hearted’ objective, does not extend to the chilly and distant family it portrays.
The opening of the film comes up on a striking and unsettling reoccurring visual motif that seems like the prismatic forms sunlight might take, gradually morphing into shapes with other import, such as the initial birthing canal outlines and the closing avian ones. What I found so unsettling about these motifs was there location within the fixed parameters of an otherwise blackened frame, thus placing these thin slithers of light, of seeing, in the vast expanses of darkness, or blindness. Throughout the first half hour of the film Malick is consistently dwelling on images within nature and the universe, that induce a vertiginous feeling of ‘smallness’ in the viewer. There is something genuinely fearful about the journey of life as outlined by Malick, with images that seem culled from the Hubble Space Telescope, exploring the moments our solar system, our universe, first came into being.
In many ways the family that we are then introduced to – the O’Brien’s – are suffering from their own moment of Hubble Space Telescope reality, or more to the point one of them, Jack, is. Jack is wonderfully portrayed by the newcomer Hunter McCracken (all gawky awkwardness, razor-edged cheekbones and jutting earlobes), but aside from Pitt’s matter-of-fact father figure, his is the only character worth a mention in the movie. The ‘Hubble’ effect then, could be seen as Jack O’Brien’s recovery of memories forgotten, or memories disowned, the moments of his life that have made that life what it is. The older Jack is played by a leaden and lacklustre Sean Penn, who in all fairness has very little to work with, yet still delivers an absurdly feckless, openmouthed performance. It is here, bookended between the inception of ‘life’ and its impending extinction, that Penn’s Jack finds himself lost in these deathly rememberances of things past, surrounded by desert desolation, a weary wilderness, or, more often, the enclosed, and encasing, glass structures that constitute modern workplace conditions in the affluent, white collar world.
As much as Malick is a master of the visually profound, on a par with Wong Kar-Wai or Werner Herzog (only without the latters dogged insistence to personal doctrine), I found myself longing for some greater sense of Jack’s life rather than these fractured and fixated memories. Jack’s mother seemed at times almost cipher-like, being the seeming embodiment of the natural in Malick’s questionable nature vs. grace dichotomy. Jessica Chastain, was beguiling in this role, but you are left with little conception of who her character is/was. This is perhaps one of the key details of Malick’s film, that if the locus of the hazy narrative is to be found in Jack’s memories (which are in turn located in a tiny nether realm within the cosmic massiveness of our universe), then Jack has no access to his mother’s tiny nether realm and his experience of her is defined by the kinship he feels to the patriarch he witnesses engaging with the minutiae of practical human existence. Details run away from this memorialisation, but isolated moments of experience, back before the death of a brother and the grief of the family unit, are what constitute the grits and grains, particles and cells of this particular life.
Unforgivably Malick’s hymnal tone swells into all out prayer in the closing half an hour of exultant orchestral music and various overtly-religious ecstatic poses. In this conclusion it seems as if Jack finds himself upon a shared beach in which he can commune with the various different memories of persons that have meant something in his life. This is curious, as it doesn’t appear to be a simple detailing of an afterlife, but rather a space in which the living person touches base with the many realisations of others that would otherwise be locked away in separate memories. There is a sense that life is born out of a love, which quickly infuses the living with a fear, a fear of what could be lost and moreover a fear of what may never be. The adolescence of Jack is then seen as a testing of the limits of love, where does an embrace fall into a choke hold, where do games become something more deadly and dangerous, where does fellow-feeling eventually disappear into loneliness. What I found most effective in the film was its depiction of simple physical contact between humans. In a particularly beautiful sequence Brad Pitt’s Mr O’Brien realises that McCracken’s Young Jack is a chip of the old block and offers the kid a reassuring embrace, pressing the young boy’s head between his arm and his side. The look on Jack’s young face at this moment is the look of a person anchored and safe at home. It is all the more profoundly moving as it comes just moments after Pitt’s realisation that he may have sold his sons an ‘uncorrectable’ lie of success, just as he himself was once sold.