The Tree of Life encompasses a multitude of one 

Beyond the Treetops

Beyond the Treetops

Nothing makes people hate Terrence Malick's movies more than someone describing Terrence Malick's movies, in the tone of a stranger trying to wedge a religious tract under your door. Here's what I did to Malick's 1998 World War II drama The Thin Red Line: "There is no plot, no main character, no crucial mission, just hallucinatory images of corruption and devastation, above which floats a disembodied consciousness that links all brothers in arms. Heaven peeks through the treetops, scattering light on scorched earth soaked with blood." OK, that's accurate — but who wouldn't read that and immediately opt for Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer? It's like yakking on about the transcendence of the Born to Run LP, when what you want to convey is something words can't really express: that about four minutes and change into "Jungleland," the force of nature that was the late Clarence Clemons is gonna raise his sax toward the skies and blow, and it's like the sun coming up.

In a way, that's fitting: the inadequacy of words to divine the spirit has become a theme unto itself in the movies Malick has made since his 1973 debut Badlands — a movie that's exquisitely written, in a twangy yet surgically precise way any Coen brothers fan will recognize. Every word spoken in Badlands has a character in it. But narration has evolved in his movies away from the particular, in Badlands and its more elliptical follow-up Days of Heaven, toward something more free-floating and abstract. Just because you hear something read on the soundtrack in a character's voice, as in The Thin Red Line and his founding-of-America epic The New World, doesn't mean you're always hearing that person's inner thoughts. You could be hearing the inexpressible doubts and terrors locked away in any human consciousness — what the soul might say, if miked independently of the brain or heart.

Well, there I go again. The problem, when you're trying to tell somebody why Malick's movies affect you in ways unlike anything else in cinema, is that you inevitably start talking about them in terms of theme and motifs and explication — when what you want to say is, "There's this shot of a woman soaring upside-down on a swing, and I can't tell you why, but I'm going to carry that with me the rest of my life." So if I were to say something about how The Tree of Life, Malick's fifth movie in a 38-year career, attempts nothing less than to fuse the individual and the universal while portraying the life force that binds man to the first cellular organisms on earth, what I really want to say is, "Why am I sitting here crying at a shot of a bug fogger?"

Yes, a bug fogger — one of those trucks that drove through my grandmother's neighborhood when I was a kid, dispensing glorious clouds of sweet-smelling poison. The rap against Malick is that his movies are increasingly full of gauzy, imprecise imagery with an overlay of woozy "poetic" narration. I would argue that in images like the bug fogger dousing a posse of cheering kids — part of Malick's evocation of his 1950s boyhood in Waco, Texas — his filmmaking is poetic in the best sense: a precise, well-chosen detail, rhythmically deployed, whose meaning extends from the private and specific to something greater. It evokes one childhood; all childhoods; and a world in which sometimes wonder can be found even in toxicity.

There is almost a concussion barrage of such images in The Tree of Life, which (as Mike D'Angelo astutely pointed out) has a structure closer to a symphony than a film. It's structured not unlike Mahler's Second Symphony, which the NSO gave a thunderous performance a few weeks ago: It segues from the grave — the first movement, in which the O'Brien family learns of the death of one of their three sons — toward light and a final triumph over death itself. It proceeds along a symbolic pathway as bold as silent film: a mother (Jessica Chastain) who represents the path of grace; a father (Brad Pitt, performing the astonishing feat of turning into an average human being) who embodies the severity of nature; and an adult son (Sean Penn) who feels the pull of both influences as he wanders the chilly canyons of an angular contemporary metropolis. To tell the story of his own childhood and upbringing, Malick literally goes back beyond the first spark of creation; in the end, he sails past toward whatever comes next.

That tells what The Tree of Life does, but it hardly conveys the exhilaration of what it is — a philosophical inquest that leaps eons in an eyeblink of a cut, yet also a pitch-perfect recreation of a Southern childhood, captured by Emmanuel Lubezki's camera in flickers as lyrical as a shot of lightning bugs blinking on a summer lawn, or a toddler's knee-high marveling at a curtain rippled by a light breeze. You can accuse the writer-director of grandiosity in framing his boyhood as the elemental story of all existence — picture asking an acquaintance where he came from, and he starts at the Planck epoch. (Afterward, a friend recalled the moment the movie took hold for him: "I didn't even blink when the dinosaurs showed up.") But what other fixed point does any of us have? The movie tries to reconcile what it means to be one person formed by individual experience, yet one among billions of others whose life cycle and basic wants have been hardwired across millennia.

Does it succeed? Only the modern-day section with Penn — the first time Malick's ever worked on film in the present — seems incomplete and somewhat unsatisfying: He's barely onscreen enough to register as anything more than a stand-in for contemporary soul-sickness. But by then The Tree of Life has the momentum of incoming tide. For people who've taken in Terrence Malick's entire directorial career over the past month at The Belcourt, one shot emerges in film after film: the camera gazing into the treetops or through blades of grass at the sky beyond. It has an effect something like the spires on a Gothic cathedral — your eye follows from the earth to the heavens, until the earth vanishes completely. So if people who love Malick's movies tend to talk about them in those heady terms, cut us some slack. After too many nights facing the dulled power of movies, we're just happy again to be believers.


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