Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for you?
Who is this Terrence Malick? Why does he put so much time, passion, and energy – so much of himself into his films – films that by their very nature are designed to resonate with such a minute fraction of the vast cinema audience?
Most of us have by now seen Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech on either YouTube or facebook posts. There are many pearls of wisdom throughout. The single line I took from it was this:
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Terrence Malick must really love his work, because he is one helluva filmmaker; and for those of us who land in that thimble reserved for his audience, we are blessed by his efforts.
Oscar nominated for both direction and screenwriting for The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick, now 67, is not your typical Hollywood director. The notorious recluse who rocked us with Badlands all the way back in 1973 is not only a Harvard grad but a Rhodes Scholar – meaning he’s of way above average intelligence.
However, unlike two other industry directors whose films seem aimed at a narrow sector of ticket buyers, Spike Lee and Woody Allen, Malick’s self-indulgence (for lack of a better phrase) is less about being giddy with his own intellect and more about a genuine sense of adventure and discovery.
The Tree of Life tells us the story of the ‘Obriens,’ a 1950s Texas family jolted by the tragic loss of their middle son.
We meet them through non-linear flashbacks via ‘Jack,’ the most tormented of the sons, played in the present day with pensive stillness by Sean Penn.
Brad Pitt plays ‘Mr. Obrien,’ the family’s brooding, dominant, and disillusioned father. A man who relaxes by playing piano and gardening, bitter to the core that he did not follow his musical passion but instead opted for factory management work that stripped his soul bare.
His inner monologue:
“I wanted to be loved because I was afraid. The big man. I am nothin’. The glory around us. Trees, birds – I lived in shame. I dishonored it all. I missed the glory. I’m a foolish man.”
Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Debt) plays the exquisitely nurturing but docile ‘Mrs. Obrien.’ Assigned the task of protecting her three sons from the abusive nature of their father, her Madonna qualities and biblical purity elevate the redemption of the entire family – and possibly mankind?
Her inner monologue:
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
Yep, it’s that deep. Sitting through this film is a genuine religious experience.
Shot beautifully by Emmanuel Lubezki (4 Oscar noms, Children of Men, The New World also by Malick), the imagery throughout is intoxicating. Much of it hand held, all of it effective.
The brilliance of The Tree of Life is how Malick puts on display through imagery and narration the inner turmoil of man. The inner monologue and dialogue with our Creator. Capital “C.”
The macro theme is stated clearly in the beginning of the film. The struggle between “nature” and “grace.” Some viewers may get lost in an expansive montage demonstrating the Creator at work – the Big Bang Theory not one we are used to grappling with 2o minutes into our popcorn.
But its the domestic strife that most of us can relate to that makes The Tree of Life so powerful. The built-in collision between father and son. The Oedipal confusion between mother and son.
I have not been a big fan of Brad Pitt’s work over the years, always wondering why his resume didn’t offer more starring roles that stuck with me. For someone who so fits the mold of Hollywood Leading Man, his star vehicles have either driven into the ditch or been left in neutral. His allure is undeniable, one of our most beloved and coveted movie stars for sure. His fans (and there are many) have admired his willingness to go for character work (12 Monkeys, Snatch, True Romance) rather than always attaching himself to the more conventional roles that fell flat (Meet Joe Black, Spy Game, Troy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith).
What has impressed me over the years about Pitt has been his thirst for quality material, mostly behind the camera where he has become a major force as an executive producer to many worthwhile projects (Running With Scissors, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Departed, Moneyball).
This is his finest performance to date. By far. Babel on a larger scale – minus the virtue.
Equally fine is Hunter McCracken, the young actor cast to absorb Pitt’s abuse. It is a mostly non-verbal performance, but he thoughtfully portrays the inner struggle.
His inner monologue:
“Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
Going back and watching the film a second time it became clear to me that the opening narration of the picture is a young girl who becomes ‘Mrs. Obrien.’ Knowing the role she plays in the existentialist journey within the film is crucial.
She starts us off with this:
“The nuns taught us there are two ways to go through life. The way of nature or the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts the insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to Lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy while all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling for all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you, whatever comes.”