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.
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.