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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.

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.

Ed Howard: It’s such a daring film, totally. The comments on our conversation about Malick’s first four films helped me to clarify some of my ambivalence about The Thin Red Line and The New World, giving shape to a complaint that I hadn’t articulated very well in the conversation itself: that those films are marred by half measures, stuck halfway between narrative cinema and the avant-garde, resting somewhat uneasily in both worlds. That is not a complaint that could be applied to most of The Tree of Life, but strangely enough, not because Malick has gone fully in one direction or another. Instead, I think he’s just reached a more assured balance between those two impulses—at least for part of the movie.

This is especially true of the long sequence that encompasses the bulk of the film’s second half, a gorgeous, emotionally and thematically rich memory of the childhood of three brothers living in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. This is, I think, quite simply the best thing Malick has ever made, and it perfectly addresses my earlier criticisms about the unsatisfying narrative currents in his most recent films. This whole sequence—which starts with the birth of the oldest brother and ends with a melancholy backward-looking shot as the family leaves their home to relocate for the father’s new job—is utterly stunning in every way, and is grounded in character and relationships to an extent that I don’t think Malick has ever before achieved.

That childhood sequence is a total masterpiece. The Tree of Life as a whole is not, I don’t think, but it’s certainly a very interesting film and, yes, a messy one, and also a very personal one. Parts of it are amazing. Parts of it are overblown and silly. Parts of it are overblown and silly and amazing. The cinematography is, of course, uniformly beautiful, if sometimes in the way a National Geographic nature special is beautiful. And then there’s the ending, which very nearly extinguished the good feelings I had about the hour leading up to this nauseatingly new agey coda. In that sense, The Tree of Life is typical of my conflicted responses to Malick’s previous two films, but neither of those films had anything that got to me quite like the troubled relationship between Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child, Sean Penn as an adult) and his father (Brad Pitt) does in this film. That this film contains some of Malick’s most remarkable work and, as we’ve both already hinted, some of his worst, suggests that The Tree of Life is indeed an ambitious film, a film that takes bold risks that don’t always pay off. As always, I admire Malick for that willingness to take risks, even as I wince at the moments where his results fall short of his ambitions. Because when, as in the childhood chapter of this film, everything comes together for him, the result is emotionally overwhelming, and says more about the human experience and the nature of life and death than Malick’s more overt philosophical statements ever do.


The Tree of Life

JB: Absolutely. And we might as well dive into that ending now, because we seem to agree that in addition to being disappointing in and of itself, it also undercuts the awesomeness of what comes before it, threatening to obliterate the impact of some of Malick’s finest work. The “coda,” by which I mean everything that happens after the O’Briens drive away from their Waco home, has to be the most awkward sequence in Malick’s filmography—cheesy, clichéd and feeble. It is not entirely void of richness, possessing as it does the mother’s (Jessica Chastain) acceptance of her child’s death and a bridge shot that neatly symbolizes man’s desire for connection (more on that later, I’m sure), but as a whole it’s a buzzkill. I can argue in favor of what it tries to do but not what it is. For 10 or 15 minutes, and it feels like longer, Malick follows the older Jack (Penn) as he wanders through a barren wasteland meant to evoke his adult loneliness, goes through a mysterious doorway and ends up on a beach—at sunset, naturally—where he is surrounded by his family and other anonymous souls wandering along the water’s edge in heavenly peace. The sequence succeeds in demonstrating Jack’s emotional catharsis, in a mathematical or architectural way, but it fails to actually conjure that emotion, to resonate.

Critic at large Steven Boone, who shares our disappointment with this sequence, argued that its inelegance is a direct result of its heavy-handed fabrication. Malick, Boone pointed out, makes films out of “found” moments—shooting liberally and often without structure in the first place, and then finding his film within that “found” footage in his extensive editing process. (Malick’s films are twice found, really.) In this coda, however, Malick seems to be directing the action, creating a scenario to meet a specific vision rather than letting the action come to him. It’s an astute observation, one that, to be fair, probably does a better job of explaining the effect of the scene (or lack thereof) than explaining how it went wrong conceptually, because while Malick certainly delights in “found” moments, he can premeditate with the best of ’em, whether that means giving us yet another house with curtains that blow in the wind or actually relocating from another yard the mighty tree that sits outside the O’Brien home. In any case, when Penn’s Jack, wearing a business suit, falls to his knees in the wet sand, his arms outstretched in exultation, it doesn’t come off as the act of a man in the midst of catharsis but rather like the gesture of an actor hitting his mark and sending an “exultation” signal flag up the pole for all to see.


The Tree of Life

EH: Yeah, the problems with the ending are legion, but the biggest one is how schematic it feels. In terms of style and approach, it’s the complete opposite of the material that preceds it. The childhood scenes are so rich in character nuance and observational detail. It’s all so specific; this story is apparently autobiographical for Malick, and it shows. If some of Malick’s previous characters and stories could be overly generic, that’s not even remotely a problem here, as the characters and settings are totally fleshed out. This story is thematically resonant, but the ideas being expressed through these characters—typically Malickian musings on elemental human attributes like love, control, ambition, loss, guilt, maturation—don’t feel forced or preachy. Instead, these ideas arise naturally from the characters’ interactions, and from the evocative, elliptical style that Malick uses to tell the story.

That’s why it’s such a letdown when Malick the heavy-handed symbolist returns for the final 15 minutes, not so much to wrap things up as to deliver a crushingly obvious vision of heaven that reminds me, of all things, of the similarly disappointing—and similarly saccharine and spiritually pat—conclusion of the TV series Lost. Why does Malick feel this need to literalize, at the last moment, the spiritual, abstract concepts that are expressed so movingly through the more grounded narrative sections? I don’t know, but it doesn’t work at all because while the young Jack is a fully functioning character, Jack as played by Penn is a total cipher who’s divorced from the depiction of his younger self. Whatever catharsis he finds on that beach, surrounded for some reason by people from his childhood, their appearances frozen in time as they looked in the 1950s while only he has aged, it’s an empty catharsis that squanders the real depth found elsewhere in the film.

I feel similarly about the mother’s acceptance of her child’s death, which is a fine idea but an awful scene. She’s bathed in white light, flanked by a pair of anonymous young women (angels I guess?) and repeatedly making the gesture of lifting her hands towards the sky and opening them, as though releasing something to fly up into the clouds. Not only is the idea hammered home with a complete lack of subtlety, but the visual sensibility of it is so lame and clichéd, an unthinking regurgitation of the most turgid form of religious imagery. It makes me wonder how such a visually accomplished filmmaker can make something so clunky—especially when the scenes like this are surrounded by the visual riches that make the best parts of this film so stunning.


The Tree of Life

JB: I think you’ve cut to the heart of it: Although there are fundamental challenges to conjuring catharsis through Penn’s scowling cipher, the scene’s biggest failure is its ordinariness. Malick, love him or loath him, has never been ordinary. He’s the guy who gives us extreme closeups of insects, who gives us stories that unfold during the magic hour and who gazes at forest canopies with the awe of someone taking in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He’s the guy who makes curtains blowing in the wind seem profound (mileage may vary). He’s the guy who gives us stream-of-consciousness narration that vacillates between poetic grandeur and plainspoken sophistication. Most significant of all, he’s the guy who for five films now has found religion, spirituality and seemingly even God himself in the natural world that most of us take for granted. Put all of that together and it’s utterly shocking that when Malick finally gets around to depicting heaven off earth—after spending his career stunning us with his depictions of heaven on earth—it would seem so uninspiring, so bland, so hackneyed. Malick aspires, as he always does, for heartfelt magnificence, but while the earnestness of the emotions and the lushness of the images are stamped with his trademark, the unimaginativeness of it all makes the profound prosaic. The beach sequence reminded you of the finale of Lost, reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s clumsy Hereafter and reminded Tom Shone of commercials for “sanitary napkins, or life insurance, depending on which channel you chance upon.”

Of course, maybe this is what The Beyond looks like to Malick. Or perhaps this is what Malick figured The Beyond looked like to Penn’s Jack. To which I say, fair enough. But the problem isn’t that the beach scene can’t be defended. The problem is that it fails to live up not only to the gracefulness of the Waco scenes before it but also to Malick’s entire oeuvre. Emotionally speaking, that scene needed to tower above almost any other scene in his career. And it doesn’t. Not even close. It feels small. I never watched Lost, but based on the chatter I’ve heard about the show’s disappointing finale, that might be the most apt comparison. Indeed, the beach scene is enough to make one think, “Wait a minute, you led us all this way for this?”

If I seem particularly critical of the coda, I suppose it’s because I feel the final moments of his previous two films are absolutely magnificent. This is the third Malick film that I’ve been lucky enough to discover in the theater upon its initial release, and I vividly remember, as The Thin Red Line and The New World were winding down, nearly clasping my hands together in prayer as I begged them to fade to black precisely where they do. Both The Thin Red Line and The New World end on emotional high points created from climaxing scores that quickly give way to the tranquil ambient noise of secluded nature. They end swiftly, even suddenly. But the coda of The Tree of Life drags on, and all the while the incredible power of the previous chapter escapes like air out of leaky balloon.


The Tree of Life

EH: Malick’s entire career has been oriented towards heaven, but I never expected him to literally depict the afterlife or the spiritual realm—and, as you point out in discussing how Malick has always found the religious in nature, I never felt like he needed to depict heaven itself in order to communicate his spiritual awe. And now that he has… yeah, you led us all this way for this? A heavenly beach and angels dressed in white robes and self-conscious gestures of acceptance and hugs all around? Maybe Jack hasn’t gone to heaven, maybe he just took an especially strong dose of Ambien. The aesthetic of the finale makes me think that it would have been a parody in the hands of a more satirically-minded filmmaker—the kind of saccharine mass-marketed heaven that Tyler Durden would have savagely mocked—but Malick apparently intends it earnestly. As you know from our discussion of Malick’s first four films, the director has always tipped too much in this overblown, self-serious direction for my tastes, but even a number of his longtime fans seem to have decided that the conclusion of his latest opus is a bit much.

That’s a shame, because if I’m especially disappointed by the final destination of The Tree of Life, much of the journey that leads there is exhilarating. The film begins in typical Malick fashion, an elliptical collage of fragmentary scenes of the O’Brien family in happy times (which will be expanded upon in the film’s second half), accompanied of course by whispery philosophical voiceovers. Then Malick leaps ahead in time to the parents learning of the death of one of their sons. Soon after, there’s a shot that absolutely slays me: the shadows of the children, projected upside-down on the concrete, running back and forth as they play. This shot will be echoed later in the film when young Jack runs down the front steps of the O’Brien house and then back up in reverse, his shadow stretched out behind him on the steps. But it’s the earlier shot that I find really haunting and unforgettable, a ghostly image that somehow crystallizes all the loss and grief of this family. Then, after a little break to show how dissatisfied and soulless adult Jack is (we know this because he works in a skyscraper!), Malick returns to the dawn of time, dramatizes the creation of the universe through near-abstract images of space and chemical reactions, spends some time with the dinosaurs before observing the meteor that wipes them out, and generally gives the impression that the entire history of the universe is leading towards the birth of the oldest O’Brien child.

As you said earlier, this is the work of a filmmaker who’s not holding back in the least. I’m not sure how I feel about some of it (the dinosaurs continue to puzzle and intrigue me) and some of it seems downright silly in that typically Malickian way (I couldn’t suppress an eye roll at the child swimming up through the underwater house right before being born), but it’s definitely quite a ride. And all of that is in many ways only setting the stage for the jaw-dropping childhood section of the film.


The Tree of Life

JB: If the beach coda is the most maligned portion of The Tree of Life—I’ve yet to find someone who goes so far as to praise it—the creation sequence is the most controversial. There are those who are all-in, those who are all-out, and then quite a few who seem to find the sequence awesome as a set piece but disjointed or even foolish in its application. After my first viewing of the film, I was probably in the latter camp (minus the “foolish” part). I was awestruck—and I don’t use that word lightly—by the utter beauty of the visual effects that depict gaseous clouds drifting, expanding and coalescing; that show planets and galaxies; that show the Big Bang and the meteor that did in the dinosaurs. I was swept up by the scope of it all, both in terms of what it represents and what it must have entailed to create. I was moved by Malick’s musical choices—the ethereal Funeral Canticle giving way to the rapturous Lacrimosa—which so perfectly convey the otherworldliness and incredibleness of the creation of life at a beyond-planetary level. And most of all I was touched by Malick’s courage: his willingness to abandon his human characters so completely and for so long, while exploring his amazement with the natural world at such an epic scale. In every way, the creation sequence is thrillingly limitless.



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