General · 27th December 2011
Posted by Robyn Budd
Editor's note: This is the launch of a new section on The Gumboot, Movie Night on Quadra. See the Section notes for more info. As reviewed by Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, UK:
At the premiere of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which I reviewed at the Cannes film festival in May, the movie's final moments were almost drowned out by the booing, jeering and giggling in the auditorium, a response widely developed into a note of balanced and wearily tolerant dismissal in print. People would repeatedly reproach me for my own laudatory notice; this film, they said, was pretentious, boring and – most culpably of all – Christian. Didn't I realise, they asked, that Malick was a Christian?
Well, that last accusation may be true, and the time I have spent since brooding on this film and revisiting others by Malick, have led me to think that The Tree of Life may well come to be seen as this decade's great Christian artwork. But I still prefer to think of it as something other than that. Just as Dietrich Bonhöffer called for a religionless Christianity, so the movie for me created a Christianityless metaphysics. It is a magnificent, toweringly ambitious and visionary work – brilliantly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, passionately felt, and deeply serious in its address to the audience. The Tree of Life is about the inner crisis of a tormented man in his middle years and the terrible unchangeability of the past. As this man briefly forces himself to consider his own negligible place in the universe, the film gestures at the unimaginable reaches of geological and stellar time, depicting nothing less than the origins of the cosmos and man himself in a colossal Kubrickian symphony of images.
Sean Penn plays a middle-aged executive evidently in the throes of a midlife breakdown, and he is mentally carried back in time to his boyhood in 1950s west Texas, where he and his brothers were dominated by an overbearing father, superbly played by Brad Pitt – a ferocious disciplinarian who abandoned his early vocation for music to become a failed businessman.
Their mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is a gentle, religious soul who asks her sons to follow the way of divine grace, rather than be content to thrive as natural beings. Their father wants them merely to be strong. When one of the brothers dies at the age of 19 on military service, it creates a wound that promises never to heal. Penn's character comes to realise that time, so far from soothing the agonies of our past, may simply preserve and even intensify them as we come to confront our own mortality.
So we are plunged back into an ecstatically remembered childhood before this tragedy, in which their mother plants a tree that she tells her boys will grow to its maturity long after they have grown to theirs. It is a prelapsarian time, yet hardly an Eden. Pitt's formidable dad presides over them all like a pained tyrant, trying to force them to appreciate music, yet also challenging his boys to toughen up, demanding that they hit him in sparring sessions in the front yard and having no scruples about hitting them for the smallest discourtesy or disobedience. Without realising it, he has taught them to think of love and fear as the same emotion. It is an electrifying performance.
And all the time, gigantic scenes from the secret life of the cosmos endow these family dramas with something alienated, bewildering – a sense of a terrifying new perspective in which their traumas are vanishingly tiny and yet have an excruciating new spiritual magnitude. They are a vivid part of an unending universal process in which man is destroyed, renewed, destroyed, renewed again – man, who mysteriously emerged from a natural landscape that exists independently of humanity and human consciousness. One of Malick's most remarkable "prehistoric" scenes shows one dinosaur approach another, apparently wounded dinosaur, place a claw on its neck, hold it there, remove it and impassively move on. What is happening? Mere survival? Or the intuition of something other than survival?
Watching The Tree of Life took me back to Malick's Jamesian drama Days of Heaven (1978), in which the unhurried action provided for one famously haunting shot of a landscape at dusk, in which the cloud-cover dips down at the horizon in a vortex of rainfall. Human life is held up against the massive fact of nature itself, impervious and indifferent to man. Revisiting his second world war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), I now see shots in the primeval forest of a "tree of life" – shots that I didn't notice first time around – and sequences in which dinosaur-descendant reptiles are examined by Malick's camera lens.
Perhaps this is what Malick's cinema is trying to teach us: a kind of Existence 101. He looks, almost stupefied – and as if seeing it for the first time – at a tree, or a river, or a cloud, and asks: why does this exist?
And from there, he takes us to the great unanswerable question, which we will all spend our lives trying, increasingly strenuously, to avoid – why does anything exist at all? This film may not be for everyone, but it makes other movies and other movie-makers look timid and feeble. I am an evangelist for it.
Tree of Life is available at Quadra Station. My thanks to Jesse who apprised me of the movie's review ("cinematography, cinematography, cinematography") and who gamely reported that viewers either loved it or hated it.