An extraordinary “Space Odyssey” of family dysfunction
The way Terrence Mallick’s ambitious, long-planned, long-awaited The Tree of Life sweeps from cosmography to tough father-son relations, it seems like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of family dysfunction. This is what, for me, lingers in the mind. True, the gorgeous images of space, waterfalls, volcanoes, even a prehistoric animal, set up a vast perspective for the film. They link a universe exploding into being with a woman’s pregnant belly, and the sweeping classical music sets the mood for serious speculation about man’s being in the world. This is framed by the epigraph from the Book of Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”
The Tree of Life is impressive, but hard to put together, hard to get your head around (though perhaps less so for dyed-in-the-wool Malick-o-philes). All that cosmography and all the whispered speculation flows, more or less, into the bulk of the film, which consists of flashbacks to an initially idyllic-seeming 1950 Texas heartland suburbia where a family lives. There is much material for reflection here and Malik exegetes will doubtless spend volumes speculating about or explaining how it all fits together. Three sons are born into purity and innocence. Somewhat schematically, they, or the oldest, Jack, who gets most of the attention, loses that innocence. The sequences skip around, focusing on the death of one son at the age of 19. Sean Penn, as an architect prowling beautiful, icy skyscrapers, is Jack much later remembering the past and longing to return to find that lost brother; their mother (Jessica Chastain) wanted to die and join him as soon as he died. In the many flashback scenes that make up the bulk of (the human, non-cosmological, part of) the film, the boys never quite reach puberty, and it is a perpetual summer. The long passage in which they face emotionally confusing treatment by their stern, yet affectionate father, played by a flat-faced, Midwestern Brad Pitt (who lacks the boys’ southern accent) is the painful emotional heart of this epic, unmoored film.
There are many episodes, but there is no discernible plotline. Rather the scenes may be meant to represent milestones in the developing dysfunction, or moral issues. The father torments the boys with restrictions and chews them out, but also frequently hugs and kisses them and at one point says they are all he has, that otherwise his life has been a waste. This despite the fact that in the latter sequence of the son’s death he seems to occupy a grander house, and he is obviously envious, angry, ambitious, judgmental and covetous towards others. The boys at times seem to confuse their father with God. Whispered questions about who and why addressed to the air or the cosmos may refer to O’Brien (Pitt) or Jehovah. This father also plays Bach on the organ like an angel, but says he has wasted the chance of becoming a great musician. He’s a complex and enigmatic, but on the surface curiously uninteresting individual (partly the fault of Pitt). In her review from Cannes, I now find that Manohla Dargis of the NY Times also refers to Kubrick’s 2001, noting that both films refer to concepts of God, though God is everywhere in Tree and has been replaced by science in A Space Odyssey. She was impressed by the blunt way Malick approaches epistemological questions in his new movie (without the mediation of a strong narrative element), but concludes in favor of the “beautiful if hermetic vision” and the “ambition” but not the “philosophy.” Not so clear what that philosophy is or what Dargis thinks it is, but the mystery is an attraction even if it’s partly also a flaw. The beauty of the film is the way it’s more the embodiment of a spiritual quest than a story. And yet it depicts the emotion of family conflict with as much painful intensity as you’ll ever find on screen.
Justin Chang in Variety (also from Cannes) provides much more information in an almost wildly enthusiastic review. Writing in the trade journal of the industry he perforce points out both the divided camps among the Cannes public and the fact that Treemay have limited commercial potential. “Pure-grade art cinema destined primarily for the delectation of Malick partisans and adventurous arthouse-goers,” he concludes, but he adds that “with its cast names and see-it-to-believe-it stature, this inescapably divisive picture could captivate the zeitgeist for a spell.”
Mike d’Angelo of Onion AV Club (and this is what I like about d’Angelo’s Cannes bulletins) chronicles his experience of watching Tree. It’s not unusual for d’Angelo to get his hopes high only to have them dashed. He thought at first it was something that would reshape our sense of cinema, a Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane or (here it is again) 2001: A Space Odyssey. But then he was disappointed that the grand conception was lost and wound up thinking once the cosmic speculations, soaring music, and Koyaanisqatsi-on-steroids (with tableaux by Jerry Uelsmann) images were done it settled down into “a solid but largely unexceptional memoir not unlike, say, This Boy’s Life.”I think his explanation of why this happened makes sense: “Maybe that first hour raised my expectations so high that no second hour-plus could possibly fulfill them, but my gut feeling is that Malick got distracted from his overall conception by a desire to revisit specific incidents from his childhood, by the need to depict his father rather than simply a father.” It turns out Tree was shot in or represents Malick’s hometown of Waco, Texas. D’Angelo may have contemplated an A+, but wound up giving Tree a B, commenting it might go up to a B+ in another viewing. It’s pretty obvious to me that for all its oddities and faults, Tree of Life is an A+, even if it’s far from being a 2001.
The film is wonderful, and like all Malick’s work, extraordinary. It is also maddening and unsatisfying, and for some, doubtless, may be laughable work, and above all seems to me more like an art piece, the kind of film footage you see in a museum installation, rather than in a movie theater.
Seen in Paris, direct from Cannes, May 17, 2011, the day of the film’s theatrical release.
On Sunday, May 22, 2011, Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
DIRECTOR: TERRENCE MALICK
STARS: BRAD PITT, SEAN PENN, JESSICA CHASTAIN
RUNTIME: 138 MIN