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. (more…)