One of the Seventies’ most celebrated auteurs, the enigmatic Terrence Malick is notorious for his stingy filmography. Until now, and since releasing Badlands in 1973, a contemplative meditation on obsessive love and true crime, the director has only made three other films: the visually stunning Days of Heaven in 1978; 1998’s The Thin Red Line, still the most poetic treatment of the psychological casualties of modern warfare; and, just three years ago, The New World, a lush, painstaking examination of explorer John Smith. Which is why the relatively quick arrival of Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, not only comes as a pleasant surprise, but makes one wonder if the 67-year-old director senses that time knows no respect for a slow-moving muse. News that his next project is set to begin production in 2012 only fuels that hope.
Regardless, Malick’s latest is his most ambitious and emotionally rewarding. A hypnotic treatise on the spiritual tension that springs from our physical and philosophical interactions with creation, Tree of Life requires audiences to not only engage on an intellectual level rarely evoked in the modern cineplex, but its languorous pace and dreamy aesthetic both encourages and allows viewers to engage in real-time self reflection. In fact, attempting to describe the film’s “plot” or its potent aftertaste seems as futile as it does difficult, if only because the viewing experience will vary so radically for each audience member. Tree of Life’s power depends on whether or not its hallucinogenic tone, sparse dialogue, and raw emotional terrain succeed in animating each viewer’s inner voice (or voices).
This sort of experience demands concentration, which is why it will be fascinating to watch how domestic audiences respond to the film on opening weekend, and why it was so smart to screen its regional premiere at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A string quartet couldn’t have expected a more attentive or carefully attuned crowd; appropriate, given that the film’s overall affect more closely resembles the all-consuming embrace of a live musical performance.
Malick’s wife Alexandra Wallace, who later revealed that Tree of Life was the favorite of her husband’s films, introduced the movie, along with co-producer Bill Pohlad (Brokeback Mountain) and actress Jessica Chastain, who enjoyed wide critical claim for her turn in the title role in the Los Angeles’ Wadsworth Theatre production of Salome.
Chastain’s presence proved to be especially apropos.
Tree of Life’s predominant narrative is anchored around the life of a midcentury American family, its tortured patriarch, and three preteen boys lurching toward puberty. The brothers, thanks to a combination of artful editing and pitch-perfect casting, are both believable and haunting. Pitt, save for a scene-nibbling turn now and again, lets his demons burn slowly and gives his fellow performers space to pivot off the tension. But, ultimately, it’s Chastain’s film. As the young mother, she struggles to infuse her household with touches of humanity or, more to the point, a sense of transcendent grace. And it is this struggle and her presence, at times almost ghostly, that most engages and endures.