Terrence Malick, the Rhodes scholar-turned-reclusive-director and extreme partisan of The Big Picture, returns this summer with only his fifth film in 38 years. His latest, The Tree of Life, comes with an epigraph from the Book of Job, which seems almost like a joke at the expense of Malick’s appreciators. O! How we suffer and wonder and struggle to forgive!
The Tree of Life, which won the top prize at Cannes this year, is a beautiful, mist-shrouded shipwreck. God knows it exudes a determined dignity, as if the plot always planned to run aground somewhere along its uncharted course. From Malick we don’t demand “story” per se. As with his earlier films like his 1973 breakout Badlands and 1998’s The Thin Red Line, we extrapolate allegory and engage with archetypes, and when so inspired, surf the curl of beauty out toward transcendence. It’s up to us whether we’re up to take the ride, which is why Malick is such a genius—and so irritating.
Some standard narrative events do transpire in The Tree of Life, presumably as recalled or imagined by a depressed Houston architect, in the form of Sean Penn, reflecting on his childhood in Waco, Texas. But there is some confusion of perspective, perhaps resulting from the forgiveable human tendency to see Texas as the center of the universe.
Malick, technically a native of both Houston and Waco, goes at will from gazing up at glassy skyscrapers or a canopy of evergreens, to literally looking down on creation. Suddenly and exhilaratingly adrift in a roiling cosmos, we’re left to piece connections together: Dinosaurs roam the earth. We see that somebody important just died. We see an asteroid, probably the one that killed the dinosaurs. Malick’s Big Picture is a film about an aggrieved postwar Texas family. It’s also about dinosaurs.
The human clan includes Brad Pitt as a wounded, authoritarian father, Jessica Chastain as an ethereal, lovely mother, and various children, most significantly Hunter McCracken, who has a good intense proto-Penn face (he looks like someone who’ll grow up with no sense of humor). Together they whisper a lot of fragmented voice-overs—another Malick trope—acting out a grand opposition between selfish “nature” and selfless “grace.” And as Malick gropes for correlation between the birth of Earth (big picture) and the death of innocence (little picture), in his ecstatic cross-cutting chronicle of primordial progress, the actors’ fealty to their director is poignant.
But for all its majesty, the two perspectives—the Lone Star and the interstellar—don’t ever really illuminate each other in a purposeful way. Maybe the best way to watch The Tree of Life is to regress to whatever came before our desire for mediated dramatic shape. With a big, plagal cadence, at the end of a rather agitated, requiem-intensive soundtrack, Malick finally delivers his characters to an island of forgiveness. His appreciators will get there too, eventually.