Terence Malick making a film is one of those events in cinemas these days. After languishing in obscurity for a good many years, he emerged from a two decade hibernation with ‘Thin Red Line’, which was in many respects a much better war movie than the oft feted ‘Saving Private Ryan’ that year. I know ‘Saving Private Ryan’ will always have its die-hard fans but what made ‘Thin Red Line’ so much better was how he kept bringing the affairs of men to contrast with the landscape and nature that surrounded them.
His films are filled with odd shots and odd cutaways that build a misc en scen like a quilt work, rather than the continuity cutting and standard shots that bolster narratives we’re used to seeing. Dialgoue flows obliquely and voice overs are like fragments of inner monologues. In short, they’re nothing like your standard Hollywood fare.
What’s Good About It
This film has many, many beautiful shots of beautiful things as well as evocative shots of evocative things, poignant shots of poignant things. In short, Malick has mastered the notion of an objective correlative and perfectly matches his observational style to the mood he is trying to create or convey. Despair and grief segue into tired memories and straining guilt. Every shot has a kind of tension that leads into the next so masterfully, you cease to question the absence of context or foreshadowing or the abruptness of the change of scenes.
This is a film by a stylist at work, putting his entire sensibility about time and space and people and objects to the fore, and in most part it is a fascinating, beautiful thing to watch.
What’s Bad About It
Sometimes the film meanders into a narrative space that can only be described as oblique and fragmented. I doubt one could do a straight narrative film with Malick’s style, but even allowing for it, this film really meanders into the incomprehensible. It just doesn’t make much logical sense in parts, but you’re drawn in all the same by the power of the images.
I don’t think the script would pass muster in a modern screen-writing class, but that’s the point. Modern screenwriters are not capable of conceiving of films like this. This one, is an auteur boldly going where he wants to go, come hell or high water. There are moments in the fanciful flights, where you simply cannot keep up with the director; unfortunately they’re the moments the film fails abjectly.
What’s Interesting About It
I’m amazed Brad Pitt wanted to do this film badly enough he stuck his name on as producer. I’m amazed Sean Penn wanted to do this film too. He seems to walk around with a pained expression and the look of the most miserable person on the planet, and then he has a dream sequence where he continues to look forlorn and dejected. I wonder if he bit Malick’s head off.
The film kicks off by talking about grace, after flashing up a quote from The Book of Job. So I feel unqualified to talk about any religious aspect of this film – to be frank I doubt I understand it in any metaphysical way. In that sense I am the wrong audience for it. The weirdest moment in the film might be the dinosaur moment when some herbivore that is lying on the riverbed encounters a carnivore that steps on its head, but for some bizarre reason chooses not to kill it and eat it. It’s a touching moment, though I couldn’t say for certain if this was because it fits in with the Job quote or the notion of Grace, though it seems that God might love his dinosaurs equally as he loves mankind.
The amazing thing about the film is that it tries to reconcile the grandness of the universe with the travails and the inner turmoil of individuals. It is as if Malick is saying “get some perspective”, but at the same time how could anything be meaningless in all of this universe, any more than it could be meaningful? With all due respect to Christians and theologians, it’s a pretty damn big universe out there that God’s created; and that’s if you even buy into the notion that he did.
Transformation of Consciousness
I was wondering what this film reminded me of, and I have say it was ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. In the last section of ‘2001’, we have the sequence in the room where Dave Bowman witnesses a whole life cycle of himself, in the room. It occurred to me as I was watching the film that the whole of ‘The Tree of Life’ was something like watching the life cycle of Terence Malick, as if we were somehow made into Dave Bowman.
Of course, the film plots out – in a very sketchy way – that there is a great distance of feeling and understanding that separates father and son. The distance is made up by the vastly different states of consciousness possessed by father and son, and then the son as a grown man. So while we are all a product of our time, our consciousness shifts during a life time so that we come to a different understanding about ourselves and the universe. By watching this film, our consciousness about time is altered slightly. It’s a bewildering film that way.
So What Exactly Happens?
This is the weird thing about this film. You see a bunch of sequences that build some scenes and others are just off-hand images of flowers or shadows of kids. You are never certain about the time relationship of anything in the film. For all we know the whole film is one long reminiscence and fantasy by Sean Penn’s character, but we never get a full grip on the narrative standing point. We have no idea who’s story this is, or if it is anybody’s story. The facts of the story seem to be far less important than the emotional truths of the film’s characters. And that makes this a fascinating film to watch.
The film is like a puzzle where you piece things together as Malick presents them, but you’re also left with the feeling that not everything is being told, and not everything is open for discussion. Maybe the film invites us to a second viewing, simply by being so obscure. But by no means is this a bad film. Amazingly, it’s a ‘good’ film – you just have to open your mind to its unorthodox wonders.