Less a race than a ping-pong match, this year’s battle for Best Director has shifted favor from an obvious lock to a popular spoiler and back again, leaving us one more not-quite-certain category to pay attention to on February 26. Not long after The Artist stormed out of Cannes, Michel Hazanavicius established a surge of directorial momentum that hardly let up, its reach even cracking the Indie Spirit lineup, which isn’t exactly known to invite the Oscar frontrunner to the party. But as the season stretched on, and a certain genre-defier (kids’ flick? Biopic?) began performing exceedingly better than expected, a Picture/Director split seemed more and more probable, with Martin Scorsese potentially benefiting from Hazanavicius’s lack of notoriety. A Golden Globe win strengthened suspicions about the Hugo helmer, as did a subsequent tally of 11 Oscar noms for the 3D cineaste fantasy. Could this be the year the Academy honors both men who blew the industry a nostalgic kiss? One of them certainly has the firm voter support to make the generosity possible. Still, as everyone from the DGA to the folks at BAFTA will testify, odds are the rise of Hugo was a mere bump on The Artist’s fated path to glory, which now looks like it may encompass Best Actor too.
Hunter Mccracken (#1–10 of 7)
Few would argue against The Tree of Life being one of the very best films of the year, but it remains the biggest wild card of awards season, a massively beloved masterpiece whose impressionistic style and ostensible inaccessibility have presumably prevented it from surging forward as a sure thing. Since claiming the Palme d’Or (which does mean something despite the common lack of Cannes/Oscar overlap), the film has landed on scads of top ten lists and picked up Best Picture wins and nominations from the BFCA, the OFCS, the Chicago Film Critics, the Detroit Film Critics, the Houston Film Critics, the San Diego Film Critics, the San Francisco Film Critics, the Toronto Film Critics, and the Gotham Independents. It has not, however, managed to declare itself an all-but-certain holder of a Best Picture slot a la The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, War Horse, Moneyball, The Help, and Midnight in Paris. Its complete Golden Globes shutout is hardly surprising, ditto its SAG snubs, but yesterday’s diss from the Producer’s Guild was a bit more unexpected, and a lot more crucial in terms of its overall Oscar hopes. Even with all the resounding support, can The Tree of Life stay in the big race?
Among the many snatches of classical music Terrence Malick employs in The Tree of Life is a selection from the evocative opening of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It’s used, if I remember correctly, twice in the film to underscore scenes of death: the family’s devastated reaction to the demise of one of Jack’s brothers; and later, the death that Jack witnesses of a child in the swimming pool. In Malick’s hands, that Mahler musical quote acquires a foreboding dimension, suggesting Jack’s growing spiritual doubt.
Though Malick’s style in his previous films has often suggested transcendentalist leanings in the way he views the world, the director’s latest vision suggests, perhaps more directly than ever before, an agnostic bent to go along with his obsessions with nature and man’s place in the world. If we’re to take Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a teenager and Sean Penn as an adult) to be Malick’s proxy in this film, then The Tree of Life suggests that Malick truly wants to believe in the God he’s raised to believe in since childhood, but that he’s experienced too much in his life for his belief to be as unconditional as he wishes. What’s the point of being good, young Jack asks out loud at one point, if there’s no god to watch over him?
Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s fifth film hadn’t crawled beyond Cannes, New York or Los Angeles before speculation intensified about the director’s future projects. It’s a natural reaction, I suppose, given that Malick once went 20 years between pictures; as important as it is to have Malick in our present, his fans also want reassurance that he’ll be back again—eventually if not immediately, later if not soon enough. According to reports, Malick’s fans can rest easy: leftover footage from this film is planned for a documentary, and principal photography has wrapped on what is now being referred to as a Ben Affleck-Rachel McAdams project, even though Malick’s tendencies in the editing room could reduce those headliners to bit players by the time the film premieres. Malick will turn 68 this November, but barring any health problems it seems safe to assume we haven’t seen the last of him. And yet The Tree of Life feels like a swansong.
It’s epic, daring and almost painfully heartfelt. It’s ambiguous and overt. It deals in spirituality and science. It either alludes to Malick’s previous films or liberally borrows from them: tokens buried underground as in Badlands; a snake illustration straight out of Days of Heaven; a woman on a swing as in The Thin Red Line; a (street) lamp shining against the midnight blue sky as in The New World; and so on. It’s the summation of all that Malick seemed to be and a doorway to something beyond that. It’s an unmistakably personal film—a conclusion I reached long before I learned that it’s quasi-autobiographical, too. It’s the kind of film you might expect from a director who worries that he might never make another one—a pull-out-all-the-stops, bounce-the-check-to-the-undertaker, this-time-for-sure purging of the soul. It’s as if to die in peace Malick needed to get The Tree of Life off his chest.
It’s his most challenging film, and perhaps his messiest, too. And for those reasons in particular it took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate its scope, its intimacy and its intricacies—which isn’t to say I’ve figured it all out or come to peace with a sequence that might be the most disappointing in Malick’s career. But when I watch The Tree of Life I’m overwhelmed by the sense that I’m witnessing the work of a filmmaker who feels he has run out of time for holding back.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life never stops moving forward. It begins with a Bible quote and ends with a transcendental meeting of found souls on a beach, and it has the structure of a child’s memories; it gathers in fragments, dreams, fancies, associations, glances, whispers, impressions. Most of it takes place in a small Texas town in the 1950s, and at a certain point, we see a truck that says “Waco, Texas,” which is Malick’s own hometown. We have no way of knowing just how personal this clearly personal film is, but there can be no question from what’s on screen that Malick is working from his own most intimate knowledge of what childhood felt like. Every short shot preserves a sense of mystery, of expectancy, so that we’re likely to feel like a character in a Virginia Woolf novel crying out, “Wait! Stop!”
For a filmmaker so consumed with the inexorable progression of time, history, and life, the way in which we’re all complex byproducts of the past and harbingers of the future, it’s fitting that The Tree of Life finds Terrence Malick finally returning to the beginning, travelling back, back, back to the dawn of everything, even as he grapples with his own complicated childhood memories and the bewildering present. Though that eon-spanning journey doesn’t occur from the outset, its relatively early appearance colors the entirety of this bold, mystifying, hypnotic film, laying bare the director’s desire to comingle the ancient, recent, and now for a lushly poetic inquiry—at once more personal and specific than his prior work, and yet also more universal and oblique—into man’s rapport with his environment, his place in the galaxy, his heart’s simultaneous capacity for kindness and cruelty, and his contradictory relationship to God. It’s the last of these that repeatedly takes center stage during the course of Malick’s fifth magnum opus, as a title-card quote from the Book of Job intriguingly open this metaphysical investigation into suffering and forgiveness—a bibilical reference to set the stage for a drama gripped by the question of why a father, and our heavenly Father, might hurt the very ones he claims to love.
Can any critic fully trust their initial reaction to such a thematically mammoth film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? I’m battling this question myself nearly two hours after the film premiered at Cannes. To do so almost seems like a disservice to the endless possibilities Malick’s film affords the viewer, like competing in a mad rush to a finish line that doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the long gestating hype surrounding the film and the “Shoot first, ask questions never” dogma of Twitter has already taken their toll. Processing a piece of film art like this takes time, and a lot of it, especially when the core function of The Tree of Life is to linger and crystallize. Since my own relationship with all Malick’s films remains fluid, I’ll try to reveal certain impressions about his latest project at this one moment in time, at this particular crossroads of perception. It’s most definitely a profound and shape-shifting work, a towering examination of the way light and sound both comfort and repel. In turn, my thoughts will most definitely follow suit, morphing over time with repeat viewings.