Magazine | July 4, 2011, Issue

The Way of Grace

A review of The Tree of Life

When Terrence Malick returned to filmmaking in 1998 after a 20-year hiatus, no critic wanted to point out that the genius director’s re-entry had landed with a thud. So The Thin Red Line, his adaptation of James Jones’s Guadalcanal novel, received glowing reviews and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and everybody pretended not to notice that the film was a gorgeous, plotless bore.

When Malick came out with The New World seven years later, though, the novelty of having him back had worn off, and the knives came out instead. His John Smith–and–Pocahontas epic wasn’t just a better movie than The Thin Red Line; it was a genuine masterpiece, perhaps the finest American film of the last decade. But reviewers who had given The Thin Red Line a pass seized the chance to gripe about Malick’s weaknesses — his pretentious voice-overs, his disdain for narrative momentum, his pantheistic longueurs. Shorn of its natural constituency, The New World died at the box office, and (in a year when the statuette went to Paul Haggis’s execrable Crash) it wasn’t even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

With The Tree of Life, Malick’s latest film, the critical pendulum has swung all the way back again, and the sniping has been replaced with hosannas. These are largely deserved, since The Tree of Life is a truly remarkable work of art — a kaleidoscope of joy and sorrow, a meditation on mysteries theological and familial, a drama of intimate life whose scope widens to embrace not only the entire human condition, but the entire universe as well. But as an entry in the Malick canon, it’s on its way to being ever-so-slightly overrated. It’s far better than The Thin Red Line, but it has enough of that film’s narrative weaknesses to fall just short of the standard set by The New World.

Most of The Tree of Life’s running time is taken up by a long, semi-autobiographical remembrance of a 1950s childhood in Waco, Texas, where Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) and his two brothers grow up with a domineering father (Brad Pitt) and a benign, goddess-like mother (Jessica Chastain). She meditates, in voice-over, on what she calls “the way of nature” versus “the way of grace,” which is an early sign that Malick is tempering his Transcendentalist inclinations with a stronger-than-usual dose of Biblical religion. His Waco is an earthly paradise, but it’s also the site of an inevitable fall. Gradually, pride and anger creep in, followed by puberty and death — and, inevitably, expulsion, out of Eden into the fallen adult world.

All of this is told in fragments — scenes and vignettes, one flash of memory succeeding another, in a near-perfect recreation of the way that childhood comes back to us years later. The memories belong to the adult Jack (Sean Penn), an architect in a shining steel-and-glass metropolis, haunted by the memory of loss, and whispering Job’s questions to the God who allows suffering and death.

#page#This framing device opens, in turn, into a much broader frame still, in which Malick delivers a literalized version of God’s “where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” response to Job — a line that supplies the film’s epigraph, and inspires an extraordinary tour of time and space. We see the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, the birth of life on earth. The springs of the sea churn and the morning stars sing, Leviathan (in the form of a plesiosaur) emerges from the deep and the treasures of the snow (the glaciers of an Ice Age, that is) spread out to cover the earth. Finally, the universal gives way to the particular, and we reach the birth of Jack himself — a boy swimming upward from underwater, and then emerging as an infant in the Texas sunshine.

All of this (I think) is part of the adult Jack’s epiphany, which carries forward to a mystical vision of eucatastrophic reconciliation on a beach, scored to the strains of Berlioz’s Agnus Dei. The trouble (as so often in Malick’s movies) is that the adult Jack has no story of his own: He’s a past without a present, a set of memories without a personality. Penn is stranded, like so many of the fine actors who thronged the cast of The Thin Red Line, with murmurs of dialogue but no character to play. And since he’s the movie’s Job figure, the character who’s supposed to mediate for us between Waco and eternity, Malick’s grand metaphysical vision sometimes seems to float untethered from the human drama at the movie’s core.

The New World, similarly, closed with an epiphany, a kind of ecstatic vision of the old world and the new. But there Malick was working with a story strong enough to keep his visions rooted (almost in spite of themselves) in the fertile soil of character and plot. This time the visions are even more ambitious and extraordinary, but the soil is sometimes too thin to sustain them.

But this should be taken as a quibble, not a harsh critique. I don’t want The Tree of Life to overshadow Malick’s previous (and greatest) film, but neither do I want to detract from the brilliance of this effort. There is nothing like this in contemporary cinema, to put it mildly — nothing so beautiful, nothing so God-besotted, and nothing that so movingly captures how the whole of time and space can be implicated in the joys and sorrows of a single human life.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Friends in Need

José María Aznar and his friends, when they talk about Israel, often use the word “normal.” Israel is a “normal country,” they say, and ought to be accepted as normal, ...
Politics & Policy

Virtual Manhood

Rodney Dangerfield, the late comedian famous for his “No Respect” routine, used to do a bit in his act about how to deal with the awkwardness of the morning after ...
Politics & Policy

Growing Pains

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is determined to be the presidential candidate for those conservatives who believe that Republicans have lately been concentrating too much on cutting the ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Growth Formulas

Cut Taxes ALAN REYNOLDS Federal spending is scheduled to remain above 24 percent of GDP, five percentage points higher than the 19.2 percent average of 1997–2007. Pushing the highest tax rates higher ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Grand Tours

In February 1825, a young graduate of Harvard College named Ralph Waldo Emerson paid a visit to the 89-year-old former president John Adams at his home in Quincy, Mass. Sitting ...
Politics & Policy

An Eye for the Real

The English geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, though an incorrigible commie pinko, was a tart and brilliant observer of life’s panoply. “My own suspicion,” he wrote, “is that the universe ...
Politics & Policy

The Way of Grace

When Terrence Malick returned to filmmaking in 1998 after a 20-year hiatus, no critic wanted to point out that the genius director’s re-entry had landed with a thud. So The ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Womyn and Males Jay Nordlinger’s “War of Words” (June 20) prompted me to think of the loss of “ladies and gentlemen,” so common in my generation. Here is The New York ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Newt Gingrich’s aides seem to be leaving him for a younger, more attractive candidate. ‐ American forces have routed the Taliban in its traditional strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces ...
The Bent Pin

It’s Complicated

A postcard from Upgraded America, our new and improved country where everything that used to be simple has become as overcomplicated as possible . . . It began with reading glasses. ...
The Long View

The Republican Presidential Debate

Candidates’ thought-balloon transcript Extract: (page 23) MITT ROMNEY: Hair? Check. Teeth? Smiling. Upbeat, lofty attitude? Done. Don’t look at Pawlenty. Mitt’s a fighter. Mitt’s a fighter. Mitt’s a fighter. You’re about to mention ...
Athwart

Weiner’s Law

Language changes quickly, given the proper nudge. Three years ago the phrase “Weiner tweeted his schnitzel” would have made you think he’d invented a wind instrument out of a sausage; ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

DUCKTOWN It had its origins in the sandy past Of Atlantic City, the old boardwalk And the short blocks, the brief alleys And small businesses with names Decalled over long empty windows. Pepper Alley they called ...
Happy Warrior

Coffee Crash

This fall marks the centenary of William Mitchell. You may not have heard of him, but in his day he was a big cheese. Indeed, he was a big processed ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More