“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
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
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
“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
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor,
United Presbyterian Church,