Bright Lights Film Journal

Dispatches from Cannes 2011 #2: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

DATELINE CANNES, May 13, 2011. On approaching a Terrence Malick film, it has seemed impossible to avoid mentioning the long gaps between the films (20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), the director’s reclusiveness, and his footage fetishism (he was said to have shot one million feet of film for The New World). All of which has helped to build a mystique around him that may also have influenced one’s assessments of his five films made over 38 years.

Now that Malick has become relatively prolific (he already has a new film in post-production), the great expectations that have built up between his movies will lessen. For me, it has been a case of diminishing returns because I consider his first film, Badlands (1974), his best. This is brought home even more forcefully by the story at the core of the portentous, overblown, and sanctimonious The Tree of Life.

Badlands is an ironic, fatalistic, and allusive picture of two semi-literate young outlaws in the South Dakota of the 1950s. The film has two narratives, a reading from the girl’s diary of how she saw events and the contradictory objectivity of the director’s narrative position. Needing only 94 minutes, Malick creates an American folk tale that is concerned with the corruption of innocence, the mythic expulsion from Eden, and the American propensity for violence. From this crime movie, he continued to develop these big themes to lesser effect in his subsequent films of different genres , rural epic (Days of Heaven), war movie (The Thin Red Line), and costume drama (The New World) , using a variety of narrative strands, all dealing with the same situation from various viewpoints. In The Tree of Life, Malick has returned to the 1950s mid-America of Badlands with a family drama of a martinet father (a closely cropped Brad Pitt) and a wistful mother (Jessica Chastain), given at one stage to elevation, and their three sons, one of whom dies inexplicably at age 19. This could have been a touching, even philosophical, exploration of familial love, loss, grief, and regret, told with the same eschewal of psychology as Badlands and running half of its 138 minutes. What Malick said about Badlands – in the days when he deigned to give interviews – could have been applied to The Tree of Life. “I tried to keep the 1950s to a bare minimum. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time.”

Unfortunately, Malick decided to inflate this small-scale tale to illustrate The Meaning of Life, a title that could have been used if it hadn’t already been taken for a slightly funnier film, or otherwise Life, the Universe and Everything. The film’s lofty intentions are immediately made plain by opening with a quote from the Book of Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

I suspect that Malick in his eyrie has been incessantly watching the Discovery and Natural Geographic Channels. So we are subjected to endless, albeit spectacular, shots of volcanoes erupting (not as good as in Haroun Tarzieff-Chris Marker’s documentary Le Volcan Interdit); undersea footage of fish and corals (see the superior Jacques Cousteau film Le Monde du Silence); deserts, mountains and fields of sunflowers; and most absurdly, a couple of computer-generated prehistoric animals, all accompanied by sacred music and whispered voice-over banalities about the nature of God.

In the only contemporary sequences in Malick’s entire oeuvre, we see Sean Penn (one of the sons now grown up) as a successful architect, gloomily roaming around an ultra-modern urban landscape reminiscent of television adverts for multinational companies. He is also seen, for some reason, walking in a desert and over icy ground. Penn then reappears at the risible climax, where the whole cast and extras stroll along a beach hugging and kissing one another and almost bursting into “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

As someone who generally prefers classical music to pop, I should have welcomed hearing Bach, Mahler, Brahms, and Smetana, but it is used, both diegetically and non-diegetically, too indiscriminately in an attempt to bring some profundity to the images. (Kubrick knew how and when to use classical music in his films.) Also excessive is Malick’s unrelenting reliance on the tracking shot and the zoom, which becomes an irritating stylistic tic.

The Tree of Life sharply divided the audience at Cannes, some cheering, some booing. On the whole, critics have given it serious consideration, with many employing purple prose as they grappled to describe their positive reactions to it. I respect their opinions, but, in this case, I cannot take seriously a film that takes itself so seriously. For all its cosmic pretensions, it is essentially a hollow, unsubtle exercise, far removed from the transcendental cinema of Dreyer, Bresson, and Tarkovsky. At one stage, I couldn’t help being shamelessly reminded of Bela Lugosi’s bizarre and meaningless interruptions in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda, words that might have slotted easily into The Tree of Life. “Man’s constant groping of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time, brings to light many startling things. Beware… beware . . . beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big fat snails. Beware . . . take care . . . beware . . .”