Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Film: The Tree of Life

Opening with a quotation from the thirty-eighth chapter of Job, verses four and seven, writer-director Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, honored earlier this year with the Palme d'Or, immediately inaugurates the first of two theological matrices that will guide the picture's historically and perspectivally fluid narrative: the suffering of the righteous. Malick begins by identifying The Tree of Life's maternal heroine, Jessica Chastain, as a guiltless Job-figure, who experiences the loss of her middle son R.L. (Laramie Eppler) at age nineteen. Chastain's voice-over and Malick's reproduction of her childhood point-of-view, in externalized, elliptical form, accordingly highlights the female lead's subjectivity from the start, though Malick will quickly replace hers with that of her eldest son Jack, played in childhood by Hunter McCracken as an adult by Sean Penn; in so doing, Malick extends the shifting narrational strategies of both The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). Jack, by comparison, is presented as embodying the second of the work's overarching theological concerns: the struggle between "the way of nature" and "the way of grace." Unlike his essentially sainted mother, who helps to reveal the latter path to the young man, Jack favors the selfish pursuit of 'nature' in the image of his fear-inducing father (Brad Pitt). Indeed, Pitt's temperamental, capricious and on occasion violent patriarch provides a second source of the familial trauma that Chastain quietly suffers and which Penn brings with him into angst-laden adulthood.

Jack's glass-and-steal present day provides The Tree of Life with a point of temporal departure for the picture's visually and auditorially disjunctive exploration of the former's childhood subjectivity. Commensurate with the interior, Proustian register of Malick's narrative, The Tree of Life is comprised almost entirely of snapshot sound and image details gleaned from the life of the Waco, Texas family, with Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography attuned to the texture of the silk curtains covering R.L.'s prepubescent face and a sudden swarm of blackbirds filling the twilit sky. Malick and Lubezki's camera frequently mobilizes, pushing through the tall Texas grass just as Malick's camera once glided through the Virginia low country and down the Guadalcanal hillside. Rather than the "contact" of the former or the combat of the latter, the experience that Malick registers in The Tree of Life is that of the boys' childhood, however, whether it is the idyllic summer afternoons spent chasing Chastain with a lizard or a garden hose, roughhousing on the front lawn or coiling in fear in the presence of Pitt's disciplinarian father. Malick's jagged, elliptical cutting on these latter occasions, it bears noting, serves to amplify the boys' dread with the film's jump editing proving as unpredictable (though frequent) as Pitt's flights of rage.

Indeed, it is in Malick's articulation of subjective experience, which is to say in his impressionism that the director once again proves himself a master of narrative cinematic practice. Malick's film language is as always singular and immediately recognizable as his own, even if it has never been quite this fragmentary. There is, to be sure, a degree of mystery in Malick's pairing of images at times - though in others, the thematic echoes that obtain provide obvious justifications - with the director's strategies more intuitive than not on the micro level. With respect to the images specifically, there is understandably a high degree of unevenness, whether on the one hand it is the director's incantatory depictions of the natural world (here, as always, the director favors low-angles of towering deciduous trees), or the advertising visual ethos on the other, in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, which emerges in the post-modern urban present and in the picture's creation of a spiritual plane, marked by sweeping salt-flats and endless beaches. Malick seems most susceptible to visual cliché when Penn's Jack appears on screen.

Though The Tree of Life's "foundation of the world" passage draws on a no less recognizable set of graphic sources, from high-resolution NASA photography and IMAX nature filmmaking to Robert Zemeckis's Contact (1997) wormholes, the sequence, with its separation of light and dark, unthinkably luminous clouds of gas and blazing lava - and of course its dinosaurs; Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993) offers another context - overwhelms with its visual beauty. (In this latter respect, Nathaniel Dorsky provides another unexpected point-of-contact.) Malick accordingly inscribes God's response in the Book of Job - the director's intrinsic transcendentalism meshes nicely with the maker's Biblical reply - in a manner that if anything does justice to this loftiest of sources. The Tree of Life likewise presents Job's restoration - which is to say, Chastain's - in the film's concluding spiritual reunion, where Jack's pursuit of grace additionally crystallizes (with great depth of feeling) in his forgiveness of his father. Here, Malick's first effort at autobiography seems to present the artist's most confessional moment. In this as in so many other ways, The Tree of Life absolutely abounds with grace.


Matthias said...

I concur with your assessment of the film. Malick's impressionist exploration of subjectivity anchors the film in specificity. What I find particularly interesting about the film's formal configuration is its evocation of memory. My film education is still limited but never before have I seen such a tangible and - at least emotionally - real visualization of a character's memories and how they form his psychological disposition. Malick is certainly an acquired taste and I like how you situate THE TREE OF LIFE in his canon. Your review serves as a viewing guide for the uninitiated as well as the experienced. Great work!

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thanks, Matthias.

As for evocations of memory, the 1990s concluded with a couple of very strong examples that I recommend wholeheartedly: Ruiz's masterful Proust adaptation, TIME REGAINED (1999), and perhaps the greatest of all contemporary Israeli films, Ron Havilio's FRAGMENTS * JERUSALEM (1997).

Jon said...

Yes I really like your reading of this film. It's clear to me that the film takes place within the context of man's relationship or lack thereof with God. You perfectly illustrate how this is articulated in the film. Many felt like the beach scene was an afterlife, and it never felt like that for me. I too felt like it was a place of forgiveness and salvation even. This reads better within the context of Western Christianity than other views, where it would be necessary for the character to die to reach such a place. It's clear that it isn't heaven but a spiritual rebirth moment. Great Stuff.

Matthias said...

Michael, thank you for the recommendations. I will hopefully be able to procure these films in the States. I am particularly looking forward to the Proust adaptation; it is, at this point, still unfathomable to me that a director succeeded in translating it to the screen.

Peter said...

The Tree of Life is perhaps Malick's best film. I love the way detailed social realism is allied to abstract metaphysical speculation, the domestic and intimate merge into the cosmic. The film touches on so many issues; relatonships and grief, memory and meaning, time and eternity. Also,I especially enjoyed the suggestion of the possibility of redemption that Malick evokes.

Michael J. Anderson said...

"Also,I especially enjoyed the suggestion of the possibility of redemption that Malick evokes."

Me too.