The Tree of Life couldn’t have come from anyone other than Terrence Malick. The primacy of directorial authorship is touted for all sorts of filmmakers, but Malick moves with such a distinct creative rhythm that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else truly emulating it. He dulls his plots and sharpens the tactile sensations of the imagery, building films by feel. He’s not infallible in this approach, but his complete ownership of the final product is impossible to deny. His films are an extension of himself, just as surely as exhaled air or spilled blood. What’s more, I can’t imagine The Tree of Life coming from Malick at any other point in his career, and not just because a significant passage of the film is reliant on special effects that would have been unthinkable when Malick first sat in the director’s chair nearly forty years ago. The film feels like a culmination, an outpouring of everything learned in a career that exchanged prolific output for concentrated significance in individual works. Malick, somewhat atypically, is already in post-production on his next film, due for release next year. That’s mind-boggling to me, not just because it’s out of character for the director to move so quickly, but because The Tree of Life feels so much like a final statement. This is what can be done with film, it announces. This is everything that can be done.
It is about impressions rather than incidents. There is a story built into the film, a fairly conventional tale of familial woe. Malick’s approach, however, eschews the expectations of narrative to instead focus on the emotions, conveying the details of a life in roughly the manner of memory shards. By and large, it follows chronology faithfully, but the film moves like a skipping stone rather than cleanly skimming the surface. Malick, it seems, is trying to capture sensations–welling fear, flashing emotions, the shifting sun of a long summer day–and, in doing so, has the faith that the assembled glimpses will add up to a complete picture of shared lives, or, maybe, a picture that’s more than complete. Viewers willing to meet the film where it is should come away almost feeling as though they’ve lived the story rather than merely watched it. That’s how comprehensive the approach becomes. The film occupies the skin of the characters it depicts, moving to their impulses and synapses.
That quest for spiritual and psychological depth through looking away at the moments when other films would stare or probe opens up the parameters of the work. Malick is not confined by his art; he can take it anywhere, including an extended passage early in the film (I didn’t time it, but I think it lasts an entire reel) when he spirits out to the turmoil of the cosmos and turns the film over entirely to spooky beautiful imagery that takes the stuff of the universe and makes it into a sort of abstract commentary. He seems to be trying to measure the pulse of existence itself, demonstrating how the inconceivable can be knowable, measurable, contained effectively enough to be thrown onto a screen. Like any person’s life, the universe and the whole of earthly and unearthly history is paradoxically too large to comprehend and yet fully within the capacity of human understanding. We don’t know why we do what we do, and yet we do. Our motivations are both beyond our ken and something that can be explained. We are elusive and definable, lost in the ether of ourselves and right there, easy to reach out and grab.
Malick grapples with these issues in the same way he has for his entire career, through finding the beauty in nature–nature that is nurtured, abandoned and destroyed by mankind–and straining to make his camera see the bending, aching images that reside in his mind, maybe even in his heart. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is a vital collaborator in this effort, filming everything with a depth, crispness and invention that feels like pure, breathtaking revolution. It is unmistakably Malick’s eye that guides the endeavor, though. Momentary shots could be easily identified as his handiwork, even stripped of any context. Hell, they may be even more identifiable with the context eradicated, truly taking Malick’s imagery to its logical endpoint, standing abstractly alone like art on a wall. It’s not that there’s a lack of human emotion in the film, and each of the actors–especially the central trio of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken–has moments in which they carry astonishing weight with just a glance, a wrinkle in an expression or a rough shading of a line. Malick hasn’t abandoned the fundamentals of narrative filmmaking, but he has upended the building block tower and reassembled it to make an entirely different structure.
The Tree of Life may be the the exemplar of a difficult masterpiece, demanding as much of its audience as it gives back. It requires attention, focus and an openness to its strange curves. It’s a refutation of escapism and is heady enough to make films that lace a little intellectual subtext into their machinery look feebly adorable. I’d say that Malick tries for nothing less than redrawing the borders of cinema, but that metaphor is flawed. Borders have no meaning when you can soar into the stratosphere.