With writing beautiful, resonant, bizarre, stomach-churning, controversial, and downright head-scratching in places, the King James Bible is bound to foster tributes that either rise to the occasion or that utterly miss the mark. For the former, see the only Christopher Hitchens piece I’ve been able to get through since he went queer for Uncle Sam, in the immortal Sondheim phrase. For some hits and misses, see the June issue of Harpers (you can only access it online if you subscribe, and since it’s only 12 bucks a year and consistently features some of the most progressive writing you’re going to find in a country without an active socialist party, sign up). It features a lovely take by Howard Jacobson on the act of creation and God as an artist, as well as a silly rewrite of a passage from one of the Samuels by John Banville.
Easily the most ambitious, imaginative, and dense tribute, intended or not, to the big book is Terence Malick’s latest movie, The Tree of Life. After quoting the majestic passage in which God answers Job with a cascade of searing and richly imaged questions, Malick posits his argument: There is grace, and there is nature. It’s a brilliant distillation of the two aspects of life that often cause people to search for a larger meaning beyond random coincidence, and which some people are comfortable referring to as God but just as many are not. Malick elaborates somewhat on grace, in language reminiscent of Paul in the letter to the Corinthians: Grace is patient, kind, takes a hit and stays standing. It is never cruel. He says nothing about nature, at least not in words. We’ll see it soon enough.
What follows is a series of images and very little story; in fact the entire movie easily has half or less the words in this post. Grounded in a seemingly blissful past, the movie begins with a beautiful mother (Jessica Chastain) racing with her three sons on one of those green suburban lawns that feed the dreams of so many of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s. An iron-jawed, remote father (Brad Pitt) lingers in the frame, smiling, easily wearing his natural beauty, but still granite-hard. There is a jump to a future; one of the children is dead, and we see the parents’ mystified and boundless grief. Before long, we jump even farther ahead, to a present-day brooding Jack (Sean Penn), still haunted by his 10-year-old self, still angry at his father for withholding grace, but also at his mother for giving it too easily.
Up until now, partly through extraordinary craft – what a team Malick has assembled, but who wouldn’t jump at a chance to work with him? – but also through the ravishing, plangent beauty that is the director’s trademark, it is fairly easy to simply watch the gorgeous images unfold. But sooner or later, Malick demands that you make the leap with him and fully immerse yourself in his vision. Most of the audience members at the Michigan Theater yesterday couldn’t do it; I couldn’t see anything but the movie, but Dennis, who accompanied me (we really do still get along), noticed plenty of squirming and one woman’s non-stop commentary about how her sister had told her not to see the movie because she’d hate it and that sister was sure right. (Just as well I was in a trance; I once stood up and yelled at a woman in Blue Velvet to Please SHUT UP. I was applauded.) Because at this point, The Tree of Life goes into a near-hallucinogenic meditation that includes views of the cosmos, then travels deep in the ocean and inside the human body. It may or may not be an extended riff on the verses in the 139th Psalm:
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness
and the light are both alike to thee.
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.”
Whether or not Malick ever read the passage, he embodies it here.
The sequence builds to the movie’s most curious point, and once again, you’ll either be there in unquestioning allegiance or scratch your head and say what the [your choice here]. The first reveal of a dinosaur reminded me of the stunning image in the otherwise bad movie, Altered States, where a woman turns into a sphinx made of sand and is slowly blown away by the wind. Here, Malick cuts to a river that makes you wonder if you’re back in the idyllic first sequences until you see that it’s populated by more terrible lizards. Nature, cruel, fiercely unimaginative and logical, is perhaps most bluntly represented by the reptilian. All of the beauty, all of the mystery that we’ve so far witnessed does not exist, Malick seems to say, without the inexorable and necessary drive to crush the weaker underfoot. Grace is a later evolution; it is not present here, nor could it survive.
It’s bold as hell, the whole thing, and if you can submit to it, you will find yourself deep in the bones of this extraordinary piece of art. For now we are back in the mind of young Jack, played beautifully by Hunter McCracken. It’s a middle-class, Baby Boom childhood that will ring true to many, and may even seem a little garden variety: a strict, remote father and a kinder, gentler mother who lives for her children. Jack’s luminous eyes look back at the father from whom he so desperately desires love or even some sort of common ground beyond chores, and also at his brother, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), who shares his father’s musical talent and, in a master stroke of casting (by Vicki Boone and Francine Maisler) bears a startling resemblance to his screen dad Pitt. Jack’s jealousy, his competitive nature – at one point he asks the mother who she loves best, to which she of course answers that she loves them all the same – his anger at being the oldest and therefore the guinea pig, all stir up to a soul-crushing guilt, where a perfect blue sky over a city of glass looks, simply, empty.
Absolution comes through another transcendent and risky scene, in which dead and living are reunited on a pristine beach, a perfect choice given the movie’s focus on origins. Malick keeps all of the people at the ages at which they’re stuck in Jack’s mind; there is no heavy aging make-up on Jessica Chastain, no attempt to recast R.L. as a 19-year-old, the age at which he was killed. Jack’s parents remain young and beautiful, his brothers remain innocent children; only he has fallen from grace, and the scene is his chance to attain it. But he must walk through a door to get there, and the great final question is whether he’ll accept the gift – after all, it ain’t grace if it ain’t free – or will stubbornly insist to shove it away.
Malick’s team is massive; there is one cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Luzbecki who blew me away with his work on Children of Men, but there are 5 editors (Hank Corwin’s name is first on the list), a huge art department, and a dozen producers. In all this excellence, I have to shout out to the sound team headed up by Erik Aadahl; the aural texture achieved is extraordinary. And the music that augments Alexandre Desplat’s score demonstrates Malick’s usual mastery at matching classical pieces to subject. He seems particularly attuned to music inspired by water: the iridescent “Aquarium” from Saint-Seans’ Carnival of the Animals in Days of Heaven, the Vorspiel from Das Rheingold in The New World sounding as if the soul of the river itself has opened its great mouth to sing. Here, in one brief but pivotal sequence, he uses the haunting, whirling cadences of “The Moldau,” Smetana’s paean to a river from his work Ma Vlast to unforgettable effect.
Water imagery is central to the movie, whether it’s a purifying, baptizing rain, a deep pool through which one must ascend or perish, or a crashing, thunderous avalanche as merciless as it is beautiful. No filmmaker understands water better, its texture, its weight, its rhythm. Given that we’re so heavily composed of the stuff ourselves, it may be fair to say that no filmmaker understands life quite like Malick, with such singular respect, wonder, or ferocious love. The Tree of Life is a testament to trying, however imperfectly, to come to terms with the mysteries that can destroy us, or, if we surrender, bless us with miraculous grace.