May 16, 2011. Cannes, France. The credits rolled after 138 minutes of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s latest and undisputedly the most anticipated film of the festival. The audience reaction was a mixture of applause and jeers. Though boos were nothing unusual from the traditionally snotty Cannes crowd, who had given the same treatment to Lars Von Trier’s controversial Antichrist in 2009 (along with a ridiculously self-righteous “anti-award”) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s soon-to-be masterpiece L’Avventura in 1960, the polarized reception of Malick’s spectacle speaks volume about the unreal expectations many have for the enigmatic filmmaker and the audacity he exhibits through his latest film in this stage of his career.
Just how big of a deal is Terrence Malick’s calling card? When rumors of the Texan coming out of his twenty-year hiatus from filmmaking began to surface in the mid-‘90s, virtually every single leading man in Hollywood was interested in what would only be his third directorial effort, The Thin Red Line. Stars in the likes of Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt all flocked to Malick for a role (but neither ended up in the film). The resulting film was a meditative WWII drama with a star-studded cast (including Sean Penn, Adrien Body, George Clooney and James Caviezel), which stood as a stark contrast to the bloods-and-guts of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan of the same year, thus marking the return of America’s last great auteur.
The origins of The Tree of Life play quite an important role in the two-decade long gap between Malick’s second and third film. Shortly after Malick completed the stunning Texas panhandle picture, Days of Heaven, he began writing his next project, Q, which according to Peter Biskind’s 1999 Vanity Fair article (“The Runaway Genius”), explored the origins of life on earth in its prologue. Malick’s idea of incorporating the scientific and spiritual aspects of the beginning of all things expanded tremendously as he sent his crew to shoot a variety of subjects from micro jellyfish to erupting volcanoes. Then one day, Malick abruptly put a stop to the pre-production. Like all things Malick, there was no explanation.
Fast forward to 2011. Q eventually evolved into The Tree of Life and many of the nature sequences from the original project are in the new film. Parallel to these mythical images of nature’s evolution, a human story loosely depicts a successful architect (Sean Penn) contemplating his contentious relationship with his father and reminiscing his upbringing as a young boy in Waco under the contrasting parenting styles of his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). It is safe to say that much of this plotline derives from Malick’s personal experiences. Like Penn’s character Jack O’Brien, Malick grew up in Waco with his parents and two younger brothers, one of which died as a young adult. Jack’s uneasy relationship with his father also mirrors the friction between Malick and his father, Emil. These autobiographical elements come as a surprise given Malick’s infamous reputation as a reclusive artist— he does not do any interviews for his films and no photographs of him are allowed to be used in promotional materials.
The story of the O’Brien clan, which juxtaposes young Jack between a bullish but ultimately loving father and an unconditionally loving mother, is by all means, quite an ordinary story on paper. But Malick’s elliptical storytelling and his lack of interest in plot development give the film a novel angle. Much of the first hour and a good chunk of the remaining film are better described as a series of montages than actual dramatic sequences, with an occasional voiceover (one of Malick’s signatures). True to the legends of other Malick productions, the unconventional auteur often had his camera rolling for minutes, shooting the actors in action (with sparse to no dialogue) and then point his lens to some other direction off the script. “Oh Jessica, no one pays attention to the script,” Chastain recalled Malick saying. While such approach is generally unadvisable to any filmmaker, it seems to have worked magic for geniuses like Malick and Wong Kar-Wai. Interestingly, both Wong and Malick both hailed from a screenwriting background— Wong was a television writer before his first film and Malick had done quite a bit of script-doctoring during his filmmaking hiatus. I can only conclude that these virtuosos understand the nature of scripting so well that they have the ability to recognize and deliver the spontaneity of the moment like few could. As Robert Bresson once said, “The true is inimitable, the false, untransformable.” Not even the best dialogue in the world can replicate the candor of an unplanned moment and Malick labored his way to make his actors’ performance look effortless.
Many of themes and anecdotes in The Tree of Lifeare quite common— loss of innocence, grief over a death in the family, parent-child conflict—but Malick’s unique cinematic grammar transforms his material from banal to universal. Free from the confines of traditional storytelling, Malick distills the innermost personal feelings from flashes of childhood images. Gaspar Noe’s neon-lit head trip Enter the Void has attempted a similar feat yet ends up as a shallow mess that fails to keep things interesting after the initial adrenaline rush (and these two movies share more similarities than you would think). Indeed, The Tree of Life helps me realize that none of the plot details matter much at the end because little of the actual details will be retained in my mind. Only the feelings I’ve associated with my viewing experience will last. Malick’s images are perennially evocative—each scene awakens the memories buried inside us. Don’t fight the allure of the film with your logical analysis and let it guide you to a place where few movies do. I can spend all day criticizing how the CGI dinosaurs are technically unimpressive and Alexandre Desplat’s music is generic at best, but I cannot deny that this is a film that will linger in one’s mind long after one walks out of the cinema.
A big scale project like this does not materialize by the sheer force of one man. The Tree of Life features the most stunningly photographed moving images of recently memory. Cinematographer Emmauel Lubezki, who also shot Malick’s The New World, and the camera crew put on a steadicam master class— the camera moves elegantly from inside a house to the terrains of Utah’s salt flats, all shot with only natural lighting under Malick’s strict orders. The perfectionist filmmaker, who has shown a keen interest in humankind’s relationship with the forces of nature in all of his films, collaborates with scientists to recreate stunning images of microbial life forms and cosmic development, in addition to acquiring twelve seconds of footage from experimental filmmaker Scott Nyerges’s short film, Autumnal. Malick’s attention to details certainly lives up to the bill.
Less than a week after being booed at its premiere, The Tree of Life was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or, the top prize of the Cannes Film Festival. Malick, true to his form, did not show up at the ceremony (or the entire festival for that matter). Only time will tell if The Tree of Life would be remembered as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of our time. But the jury, headed by Robert De Niro, knows the history of Cannes too well to risk being guilty of snubbing another potential classic.
The Tree of Life opens at Landmark River Oaks Theatre on 6/10.