Terrence Malick has made five films in thirty-eight years. All of his films are recognized critically as masterpieces. Keeping with that tradition, his most recent film The Tree of Life won top honors at the Cannes film festival last month. Speaking about the film, head of the Cannes jury Robert DeNiro said, “It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” DeNiro’s offhand comment is invaluable to deciphering how this film has steadily risen, without much apparent consideration, to a respectable position within the pantheon of contemporary American filmmaking.
The movie is basically the story of Malick’s Texan youth in the 1950s, intercut with glossy meditations on the history of life on Earth. Sean Penn, playing the older version of the young boy we see constantly intimidated by his father (Brad Pitt), wanders awed and aimlessly through a gleaming present-day metropolis. There is a quiet voiceover, often whispered, presumably because only serious things are whispered. As with any of Malick’s films, bizarre moments are captured with a grace that makes them undeniably appealing. In one scene a band of young, directionless boys destructively wander the hinterlands of their hometown; a father intensely urges his son to hit him as the camera floats gently before their faces; children frolic in clouds of hazardous DDT.
What sets these sequences apart from the rest of the film is their total honesty. They don’t defer to clichéd images that stink of Planet Earth—they instead capture the weirdness of being young, the inanities of fatherhood, strange moments that are genuinely past. Even if these aren’t real memories, they’re still something known, something felt, something represented.
However, the elements of the film that haves garnered most praise, confusion, and appreciation are the sequences concerning the origins of life. These moments feature everything from the Big Bang to a heartwarming scene in which a CGI dinosaur spares his prey. O, glory! Yet, far from the objects of sublime, inimitable beauty these shots are intended to be, they seem hollow, generic, and clean. They have all the beauty of screensavers, commercials, stock photos.
But they’re enormous, and as such probably important (this is where DeNiro comes in). They’re set to an operatic score, yet this also seems like an overbearing way of emphasizing the gravitas of these generic yet supposedly beautiful images. When Stanley Kubrick set a classical score to shots of dancing space technology, he did it with a deft eye for irony and a comic sense that something so modern could be beautiful. Godard once claimed in an interview that Steven Spielberg had only shot Schindler’s List in black-and-white because, for Spielberg, black-and-white meant “serious.” Immediately, this comment came to mind watching Malick’s overproduced iconic imagery set to a classical score.
By the end of the film, though, I doubt many people are genuinely fooled by Malick’s sense of drama and eternity so large it becomes frequently hilarious instead of groundbreaking or awesome. For a film that supposedly grapples with humanities place in the cosmos, I came away learning little about anything, including the intention of Malick’s supposed metaphysical reflection. Rarely, though, is the American multiplex faced with a film like The Tree of Life. Yet despite being a project of unequaled ambition, it is important to note that ambition, importance, and size alone shouldn’t earn any gold stars or Palme D’ors. But in America, where bigger is better, we’ll take what we can get. Whatever you want to call it.