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From a Distance

by John Rodat on June 29, 2011

The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick

Director Terrence Malick is hardly a prolific filmmaker: just six movies completed over four decades (the last of those yet to hit theaters). But his release-to-“masterpiece” ratio is one of the best in the biz.

Since his first, 1973’s Badlands, Malick’s gorgeous, contemplative films have won respect and praise as examples of the highest art in the industry—and, if ambition and scrupulousness are criteria, not undeservedly. Malick is a cerebral and painstaking auteur. But in recent years (recent, that is, on Malick Standard Time), I have found little to connect to in Malick’s work. It’s cold.

It’s a curious coldness, though; unlike, say, Cronenberg or Kubrick, who could both be clinically chilly, Malick’s coldness is not that of an operating room or a psychopath’s mind. It’s a cosmic or a geological chill. Cronenberg and Kubrick tend to run roughshod over their characters, poking them, bullying them, manipulating them, torturing them; Malick regards his characters from too great a distance, it seems, to be so forceful with them. Malick is, in a way, the very unknowable god whom his characters question so hopefully, angrily, desperately.

Malick uses a Texan family, the O’Briens, first presented in the mid-’50s, as the focal point for The Tree of Life; but to say that the family are the subjects is to overstate the case. The O’Briens are presented as a microcosmic reiteration of the dueling forces of the universe, which are—as ever—Malick’s true subject. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is Nature, which strives and “only wants to please itself. Get others to please it, too.” Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is Grace, which “doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” The couple’s three boys, particularly Jack (played by Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn), are torn between the lessons taught by these two parental/elemental forces.

Tree of Life is an incredibly adept, entirely unsubtle musing on the internal conflict felt by humans with equal ability to apprehend and create beauty and to cause and feel pain. It does not attempt to resolve this issue, ultimately, but to state “‘twas ever thus.” Malick spends long minutes fondling his own thoughts about time, history, and the universe, washing the audience in visually impressive re-creations of cosmic or microscopic oozings and flowings. He even takes a turn for the Jurassic, to present a gorgeous—but behaviorally dubious—moment of Grace in a prehistoric predator-prey relationship.

The movie isn’t meant as an answer, but as an exploration, an acknowledgement of the chaotic roil of Nature and Grace. As such, I suspect that many viewers will find it unsatisfying—even tedious. At one point, I found myself thinking of it as Koyaanisqatsi meets the Brangelina Vanity Fair shoot. But that’s short shrift, and the cast and Malick, himself, deserve better.

First, the cast is perfect. I tend to dislike movies centered on children. Few directors can avoid naive or overly reverential treatments of that “magical” time (cough Spielberg cough). But Malick can. The children in Tree of Life are real, raw and beautiful. And Chastain and Pitt are just excellent. Chastain, whom I’ve not seen before, gets just the right ratio of yielding and steely to be credible in a role that easily could have been overwhelmed by her counterpart. And Pitt nails it.

For all your DiCaprios, Goslings, Nortons, etc., I am consistently surprised by Pitt. He takes tough, ambitious and quirky roles and with what appears a minimal amount of method actor-y bullshit, he gets the job done. It’s a grounded, nuanced performance without which Tree of Life would feel like an extended windy riff.

Malick is, as it happens, an ABD philosophy student (studied at Harvard and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar). Tree of Life feels like the product of such a student. There is much in it to try your patience. But, to the extent that Malick meant to propose that in an unknowable universe one must cling to the moments of grace provided by the well-meaning and flawed, the human, his cast delivers the message.