With his latest work, director Terrence Malick has gotten as close as he probably ever will to just blatantly laying out in no uncertain terms his fundamental and abidingly humanistic teleological argument about the nature of the cosmos and humankind’s place in it. Which is to say, it’s still going to be regarded as obtuse by many and downright boring by many others. The narrative of The Tree of Life is by no means groundbreaking, nor is it supposed to be. Malick literally shows us his interpretation of the universe’s beginning, then the formation of the earth, the dinosaurs, and finally winds up drawing upon his own upbringing in Waco, Texas during the 1950s. Malick also liberally peppers the story with some well-known and well-worn concepts about life, most especially those perennial ideas concerning humankind’s relation to itself and its surroundings. While the moral import of the film is readily apparent to those paying attention, with the director setting up an almost formally classic dualism between grace and nature vaguely reminiscent of his major early focus as a philosophy student (namely, Heidegger), Malick ultimately seems less concerned in this film with the universal concepts that permeate it, and more genuinely intrigued by the individuals who populate it. And therein lies what I think is the central hermeneutic to understanding the sublimity that has characterized all of this esteemed director’s works.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who previously collaborated with Malick on The New World and who brings the same level of visual acumen to The Tree of Life, has stressed in interviews Malick’s insistence that what he is trying to accomplish has much less to do with narrative and dialogue than it does with sincerely human experiences. The Phenomenologists, who the director undoubtedly studied as ancillary to Heidegger, were fond of stressing the importance of erlebnis (lived experience) over theory in trying to make sense of the world, and this preoccupation shows throughout Malick’s canon. Beginning with his very first feature, 1973’s Badlands, the director has exquisitely and consistently captured the sublime beauty of pristine nature, so much so that some noted critics have pointed out derisively the similarities between Malick’s films and some one-off nature documentary you might catch on PBS on a Tuesday night. While the nature photography of his works is breathtaking in its own right (this being no exception), what allows Malick to brilliantly transcend the mere documentation of the natural world is his ability to so thoroughly engage his audience in his exploration of human’s basic relation to this unspoiled beauty, and how often we end up spoiling the shit out of it.
Malick has an uncanny knack of teasing out universal themes from the everydayness of the lives of people you normally wouldn’t really care all that much about. An unremarkable family growing up in a humdrum town that suffers their fair share of small tragedies and even smaller moments of grace may not inspire the same amount of awe in the average film-goer as a super-hero might, but Malick, in his wisdom, is unafraid of allowing his characters enough time to reveal everything that makes them (and everyone else, when you think about it) worthy of our rapt attention. There’s an episode during Malick’s retelling of the Earth’s Jurassic period between two dinosaurs, one of whom is wounded. The scene, which in the grand scheme of the movie is pretty small, struck me as an instance where Malick truly showed his cards. Whereas the ambivalence of the human characters in his film hold everything together pretty tightly, the exchange between the two dinos is one of the most hopeful passages in any of Malick’s films, and one which, while characteristically unsentimental and subdued, struck me in its finality and resoundingly positive-if-not-entirely-pleasant message.
The roles that place and the home play in this film are reminiscent of his earlier masterpiece, Days of Heaven, wherein a farm house was, for all intents and purposes, the central character. In keeping with Malick’s emphasis on experience and humankind’s relation to its senses, a person’s place in the world is pretty close to being sacred for the director, and it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Malick’s basic attitude’s towards the home (at least in his films) that the most traumatic and resoundingly important event in the family’s life has to do with their house. Malick is not merely engaging in nostalgia for an idealized past — the past he presents is far from ideal. Instead, by calling his audience to pay attention to the physical circumstances of his characters, and the small geographical area in which they live, Mr. Malick draws us away from theory and the very idea of social hierarchy and towards a more basic perspective vis-a-vis man’s essential relationship to the land he walks on. In this way, one can readily point out the traditions of the Southern Agrarians from which Malick has inherited much. While Malick’s trademarks are all evident in The Tree of Life (voiceovers, juxtaposing the tranquility of nature with the violence and heartlessness of men, the use of supremely intense ambient and classical music, etc.), what’s new here is Malick’s framing of human actions alongside the entirety of existence, from its beginning to its inevitable end. The effect is both humbling and enjoyable beyond words.
According to Lubezki, in an interview with Sight & Sound Magazine, Malick’s next feature is going to be “even more abstract” and “even less narrative” than this film. Although, to be fair, his next film also stars Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, so it seems to me that it could go either way. I can only hope it will be as beautiful as this truly sublime cinematic achievement, which I’m not alone in considering his magnum opus. In some ways, I’m happy that The Tree of Life won’t be Malick’s last film, but — when I can be honest with myself — I kinda feel like it should be.