2011 // USA // Terrence Malick // September 1, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
I first encountered The Tree of Life four months ago, and given the primacy of the parent-child relationship in Terrence Malick's lauded film, part of me assumed that revisiting the film following the birth of my son would permit me to appreciate it in fresh ways. And, truth be told, the affecting quality of the film's suburban Waco scenes was intensified, if only because I found myself reflecting that much more intently on the ways in which my wife's and my outlook will inevitably mold our son's character. Young Jack's matter-of-fact statement of his revelation to his father, "I'm more like you than her," is an expression of the narrative nucleus of the Waco sequences. Indeed, the importance of this declaration is the reason that the last year of the O'Brien's residency in the little corner house figures so prominently in adult Jack's reverie. The pivotal events from that time period—the death of a local boy in a public pool, Jack's theft of a neighbor's lingerie (and possible first masturbatory experience), Jack's shooting of his brother with a pellet gun—all lead in some way to Jack's revelation that he is his father's son, i.e. more a spirit of Nature than Grace.
In addition, there were details that I caught on my second go-around that deepened my appreciation of the film. For example, the context of the more perplexing imagery early in Jack's memories—such as the children following a woman through a forest, or a boy swimming through a drowned house—makes it clear that what we are seeing is a metaphorical expression of the pre-birth experience. (This, in turn, reinforces my suspicions that the film's final sequences are a highly symbolic conception of the afterlife, or at least the afterlife as Jack hopes it will be.)
In the main, however, my initial impressions, articulated in my conversation with fellow Look/Listen writer Patricia Brooke, were essentially reinforced with a second viewing. I remain fascinated with the pure visual poetry of those extensive Waco sequences, which are realistic while also conveying the disconnected and dreamy quality of half-remembered times. If one considers the depiction of the O'Brien family as a standalone object, I'm tempted to call it the most successful use of Malick's unconventional editing methods (here implemented by a five-person team of editors) in his entire filmography. Jack's memories take on the quality of a collage of moving snapshots, assembled in roughly chronological order. In some ways, the experience of the film is therefore like flipping through a family photo album, with the expected lingering over memories that are especially potent. This approach allows Malick to achieve a glinting, unabashedly nostalgic depiction of a lost American landscape, and yet also infuse it with the sort of melancholy that any journey through an intensely personal past can achieve. In this, the best moments of The Tree of Life share a common character with Terence Davies' superlative documentary memoir, Of Time and the City.
I remain, however, generally unmoved by Malick's joining of Jack's conflicted inner odyssey to cosmological ruminations on the nature of God and existence. I chalk that up partly to my own suspicion of earnestly presented spirituality, and partly to the inadequacy of Malick's method. It's certainly possible to be touched by a work of cinema that expresses a worldview dissimilar to one' own. Heck, Malick's own The Thin Red Line ultimately seems to side (narrowly) with Private Witt's theistic, anti-materialist view of the human experience, which I reject and yet still found deeply affecting. In The Tree of Life, however, while I clearly understood what Malick was trying to achieve with his images of nebulae and jellyfish, I found little resonance in those visuals. Where some have seen a profound expression of vexing philosophical concerns, I see a handsome illustration of a deistic worldview that is self-evidently dead on arrival.
Moreover, the director's decision to expand the scope of his observations beyond the immediate environs of his characters, to encompass all physical reality, seems to have heightened his taste for the grandiose even as it diminished his focus. One of the primary factors that makes his previous films such innovative and entrancing works of cinematic art is how he utilizes the local surroundings to establish an "ecological" narrative that is just as vital as the human-centered narrative. (The former, it should be stated, can consist of human-made environments, such as Days of Heaven's steel mill.) Freed by computer technology to explore the outermost reaches of the cosmos and the innermost workings of a living cell, Malick seems to struggle a bit more to connect his images back to the O'Briens and Jack's inner turmoil. For me, the paradox of The Tree of Life is that Jack's memories have a palpable aura of the sacred, while the film's visions of spinning galaxies and stalking dinosaurs strike me as somewhat antiseptic. They effectively remove me from the embrace of the cinematic experience rather than providing a macroscopic counterpoint to Jack's story, which strikes me as the opposite of the intended effect.