The Films of 2011: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s movies look and feel different from those of any other filmmaker.  Building sequences out of hundreds of brief but powerful individual images, his approach is both grand and intimate; his films are like intricately designed mosaics, something the poster for his current film, The Tree of Life, has picked up on.  The clean, grid-like design of the poster, however, is slightly misrepresentative of the intuitiveness and lyricism with which Malick’s films are constructed.  The Tree of Life is a masterful film that thinks big, that lays on broad strokes, and that is overfull—stuffed to the breaking point with ideas, symbols, and patterns.  But that’s not a bad thing.  Rather, it is a mark of Malick’s genius—his audacious desire to tell the story of the history of life, his version of the origins of the universe, beginning with a psychedelic fiat lux (shades of Kubrick and Brakhage here).  Malick has always been a filmmaker who has been drawn to cosmic subject matter, and here he attempts his most cosmic feat yet, attempting to fit all of geological time into the span of a two-and-a-half-hour film.   

Long anticipated and already highly praised (it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last month), it’s an endlessly fascinating film and, like all of Malick’s previous work, ravishingly beautiful.  After a short prologue and a virtuosic opening sequence that depicts the evolution of life on Earth, set to the strains of a stunning requiem mass by Zbigniew Preisner, we settle into the story of an American family in 1950s Texas.  The transition from images of primitive undersea life and churning atmospheric gas to suburban lawns and cooing toddlers is admittedly abrupt.  No doubt one could object to Malick’s decision to ground the majority of this ambitious film in so seemingly banal a milieu.  But the domestic drama that unfolds is, in spite of its more or less modern trappings, presented as an ancient one.  Malick attempts to re-write the Bible in this film in ways that call to mind Walt Whitman and D. H. Lawrence.  His characters are not a family but The Family, the first family, and they bear out the traces of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.  (The Book of Job, quoted at the beginning of the film, is an equally strong influence.)  The film seems just as heavily informed by the narratives of psychoanalysis: Malick stages the development of the child Jack from infant to adolescent boy as a series of primal scenes and Oedipal confrontations.  And never before have such scenes been so lyrically conveyed in a film; through his gliding camerawork and pristine cinematography, Malick captures the very essence of childhood joy and trauma, finding wonder in every beam of light and every blade of summer grass.  The imperfections of this staggering film are so slight by comparison with its scope and grandeur that they come to seem immaterial. The Tree of Life cements Malick’s reputation as a film artist working boldly and impressively on his own wavelength.  

1 comment:

  1. Lovely review! I'll definitely have to see this one now!