“The Tree Of Life”
There are some Directors who shoot their movies in such a way that you can’t even tell they’re there. They fade into the background, behind the camera, and are trying hard to let the narrative take over, or want to arrange the scenes so that performance of the actors shines through. They might appreciate insider recognition, but they don’t really care if they’re recognized by the moviegoing public or not. Other Directors put such a strong personal stamp on their films that not only can we not help but notice, we’re overwhelmed by the uniqueness of their style, and their method of Direction is such a forceful aspect of the film that it becomes the primary consideration in viewing it.
Such are the ways of the enigmatic Terence Malik, and “The Tree Of Life” is perhaps his most grandiose effort yet. It’s such a one-of-a-kind film that it’s difficult even to categorize. In the future, perhaps, it will become its own genre and become known as Malikism.
I would venture to call it “Cinematic Impressionism.” Think of a collage of images, all striking, connected, but each picture standing on its own, like a freeze-frame, making its own impressions. Think about very long silences in the dialogue, where the viewer is encouraged to just let the visual take over, which will feel like pacing so deliberate as to be potentially ponderous, and yet, the sheer beauty and starkness of the images are enough to invoke internal dialogue, so the result is not boredom, but evocative musing. Malik is also completely unafraid to move easily between video montage and standard interactive character dialogue. But he’s never in a hurry. As if every photograph is worth a thousand thoughts. This is the opposite of the frenetic, frantic, MTV-type rapid, random, drive-by flash-images, so pervasive in advertising, seemingly made-for-attention-deficit-disorder. This is like so delighting in a brilliant sunset that you sit and watch the slanting rays turn to twilight, and the observe the landscape slowly morph from dimly reflective to opaque gloaming. You just can’t be in a hurry, or you won’t get it. And you won’t enjoy it, either.
We begin with some furtive images of an obviously-prosperous couple in a beautiful, light-filled home being suddenly confronted with horrible news. We are given so few details that we almost want to stop the film and request an interview, so we can deliver our 20 questions, but this much we slowly realize: it’s the death of a child. And perhaps that is all we need to know to understand the depth of despair suddenly enveloping the characters.
Now we embark on the farthest kind of flashback imaginable. As if the back story is not just when the characters were young, but when the very creation was young. As if we’re beginning at the beginning of time. And, in a sense, all of our stories contain this backstory, and yet it’s almost never told, not in this kind of artistic rendition. And yet, in due time, at its own pacing, we find ourselves looking at languid images of a younger man and woman, bringing the babies home, nurturing them, rocking them, feeding them, reading stories to them, and before we know it, it’s the 1950’s in Waco, Texas. Middle-class community. Frame house on a tree-lined street. Nurturing Mother (Jessica Chastain), red hair and freckles but a classic beauty with full lips and high cheekbones and soft eyes, wears house dresses as the stay-at-home Mom. She’s the one who’s fun and lighthearted, she’ll play tag with the kids, and squeal with delight at squirting the water hose at each other in the small back yard. Dad (Brad Pitt) is quieter, more reserved, stern at times, but like he feels he needs to be, to teach the boys to be strong. He considers himself as the head of the house, and she permits him to think that. Sometimes he is absent, sometimes he micromanages, sometimes his temper flares, sometimes he intimidates without realizing, sometimes he takes out his personal disappointments on the innocent charges in his care, but he’s there for them. He never abandons them, though at times they wish he’d consider a leave of absence.
The religious images are realistic, but somehow devoid of conviction. The prayers at meals are rote. The churchgoing is ritualistic. The sermon is unmemorable. As if we’re really more interested in pantheism, but we’ll nod to traditional Protestantism because that was the pervasive expression of the culture. And the projection of the afterlife, if that’s even what it is, feels more like a day on the beach with people from the past. And who knows, maybe that’s more accurate than any of us would suspect.
“The Tree of Life” is the kind of movie that will provoke conversation, perhaps even film school fodder, but it’s unlikely to be wildly popular, because it’s too detached. As if Director Malik is more interested in observing than connecting with his viewers. If you choose to go, prepare for something really different. And strangely familiar.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas