Monday, May 30, 2011
T-shirts, Blue Jeans, Creation, the Universe, and the Answer to All the Questions in the World: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life
The first thing that Terrence Malick’s new film did for me was take me back to my childhood in California during the late 50s and early 60s, when a year was an eternity, summer seemed to last forever, and much of my life was spent outside with my two brothers, dressed in t-shirts and blue jeans, playing baseball or “guns,” riding our bicycles to nowhere in particular, or wandering in the San Mateo hills, finding an old shack, and smashing panes of glass.
In The Tree of Life Malick’s screenplay and direction, as well as Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, masterfully capture the day-after-day cycle in the life of a family. For the story’s memorable setting, production designer Jack Fisk and art director David Crank take a residential block and a main street in a small Texas town and send them back in time to the 1950s. For a film which does not have the luxury of a novel's many pages, it is always a challenge to capture the passage of time, but in its focus on the O’Brien family, Malick vividly depicts the countless days from the birth of three boys to the endless days of boyhood in a collage of vignettes that left me feeling like I had absorbed a thousand-page novel in two hours and eighteen minutes.
In addition to all that, Malick inserts a dazzling depiction of the birth of our planet from gaseous clouds floating in space to explosive volcanoes to dinosaurs browsing in a redwood grove. Only until Malick has delineated the vast scope of the universe in which humans fall in love and make families, dwarfed by that universe, can he return to the single family that is the focus of this story.
Father (Brad Pitt) is a 50s head of the family, bringing home the bacon and asserting his authoritarian rule but sometimes boiling over into bursts of anger incited by his own frustrations. In brief shots, Pitt reflects Father’s inner turmoil, his desire to be a good father while he yearns to be a highly accomplished engineer and deals with the frustration of being an unfulfilled musician who did not follow his dream. Mother (Jessica Chastain) is the epitome of tranquility and compassion, a Christ-like figure when she gives water to a criminal who looks like he’s just been apprehended after a long chase. In a single shot Chastain exudes the tenderness that is the counter force influencing the upbringing of the three boys: Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest; the artistic, sensitive middle child (Laramie Eppier); and the laconic youngest (Tye Sheridan). McCracken, in a touching, naturalistic performance – the most striking performance I’ve seen all year – displays a wonderful talent for conveying worlds of meaning with a single glance or a shift in his body posture, and his mostly silent performance covers the dawning awareness and the emotions of the many years in a boy’s development.
After Jack’s birth, all the days of Jack’s life are are depicted in lively vignettes that blend together seamlessly to form the layers of a life. The many days of infancy are nicely delineated by a repeated shot of Mother turning out a bedside lamp. After the birth of Jack’s brothers, the film flies into exhilarating cinematic motion as the camera follows the boys climbing a tree, riding their bikes, throwing a ball over the house, rolling down a grassy hill, or simply lounging around in t-shirts and jeans, day after summer day. Through Jack’s eyes, we grow up again. We hold sparklers on the 4th of July; we dress up for Hallowe’en; we become aware of life's tragedies; we play on the school playground; we follow a girl home from school. We do bad things.
Following the Creation sequence, the film echoes Genesis again as Jack struggles with free will, wanting to do good things but being tempted to do bad. He can be a destructive little boy, smashing a garbage can, breaking windows on a dare. He can lust after a neighbor woman hanging her underwear on a laundry line and washing her bare legs with a hose. He runs from a sin committed, face full of guilt. The Genesis allusions continue in the depiction of sibling rivalry between Jack and the middle brother, suggestive of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau. Similarly, Jack seeks favor from the Father, as Jacob did with Isaac.
As with Days of Heaven, Malick tells a poignant, powerful story by means of snippet scenes that might have one line of dialogue linked to another snippet by a montage of images that may hold meaning or might just be achingly beautiful. We get pieces of the conflicts that arise as Jack is torn between a mother’s compassionate example and a Father’s tough dictates stemming from an unsatisfied longing. These conflicts, in turn, make Jack the adult he becomes, a man (Sean Penn) who has achieved power and success but seeks fulfillment by letting go of his bitterness and embracing the “glory” that he turned his back on.
Adult Jack must pass through the many doorways seeded throughout the film, an image that is part of a matrix of imagery from Malick’s previous four films: a patch of sky through the treetops; grass blowing in the wind; snakes; lace curtains moving in a breeze; rivers; boys swimming underwater; a room whose ceiling becomes the sky. These are images that Malick clearly loves, images that have meaning to him, and here, in The Tree of Life, Malick bares his tender soul passionately, powerfully, sometimes tritely, sometimes inscrutably, but he boldly attempts to deal with all the questions in the world, and he leaves you with the feeling that he has nearly answered them all. Malick’s soulful exploration of all the questions in the world might take too long wandering on the beach of heaven, but I’ll allow a man his indulgence when he has the talent to capture memorable power and significance in a single image, as in one of my favorites in this film: a boy’s hand holding a wisp of dried grass on a leg clad in blue jeans, as two brothers console each other against one of life’s hard moments.