Enlightenment springs from an unlikely source.
Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
In 1963, Mel Brooks made a three-minute short called The Critic that won an Oscar. What you see is a series of animated shapes and patterns and squiggles. What you hear is a Yiddish-accented 71-year-old man reacting to what he’s watching. “What the hell is this?” he says. “It must be symbolism. I think it’s symbolic. Of junk!”
You can watch The Critic on YouTube. And if you do, what you will be hearing is a version of what people all over the country are saying as they view Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Having been drawn to the theater by the names of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on the poster, and by a pretty trailer that suggests it is a sentimental story about a 1950s family, moviegoers have instead found themselves trapped in the dark with something strange and abstract and hard to follow. And they are storming out in droves.
Yes, it has Pitt and Penn in it, and yes, it does come to center on a boy growing up in Waco at a time when children happily chased after trucks spraying DDT. But The Tree of Life is after far bigger game. It is an unironic, full-bore inquiry into man’s place in the universe and a complex acknowledgment of the unmistakable omnipresence of the divine. That’s really what the movie is about. It has no story to speak of, and Malick explains nothing. It’s left to us to piece together that the almost-silent Sean Penn is the adult version of the little boy we see through the rest of the movie growing up in an idyllic memory of the Texas town.
We must also piece together that what we are watching is a visual representation of a spiritual crisis afflicting Penn’s character—a crisis of faith born of the death of his younger brother. As the crisis of faith erupts, based on little more than an elliptical conversation with his own father and the sight of a tree growing in front of an office building of which he is the architect, the movie basically stops in its tracks for 15 minutes. For those 15 minutes, its writer-director, Terrence Malick, attempts nothing less than a depiction of the creation of the universe informed by Genesis: We see God, the world without form, the creation of light, the separation of the light from the dark, the land from the sea, the invention of life itself.
I’m sure by this point that I’ve convinced you to avoid The Tree of Life at all costs. Indeed, I avoided it myself for a few weeks. It is the fifth feature in 38 years made by the writer-director Malick, whose work I haven’t liked, to put it mildly. His career began with the brooding and pointless serial-killer film Badlands and the gorgeous but inert Days of Heaven. Then Malick fell mysteriously silent for two decades before releasing a preposterous combination of World War II battle flick and South Seas nature documentary called The Thin Red Line, inexplicably nominated for a handful of Oscars. (Seven years after that, he made a version of the Pocahontas story called The New World, but having spent those seven years recovering from the coma into which The Thin Red Line had placed me, I couldn’t bear to see it.)
What these movies have in common is a stunning lack of interest in plot, character, or incident—all the things that generally draw one into a movie. Malick is a metaphysician, not a storyteller; he is interested in the mechanics of being and existence, and the relation of man to nature. Which is nice for him, but to me and many others like me, the equivalent of an aesthetic root canal.
So imagine my surprise when The Tree of Life—which has every one of these weaknesses—completely overwhelmed me. The movie is a maddening and staggering combination of grandiosity and grandeur. Mostly, though, The Tree of Life is earnest and deadly serious, and those are qualities so rare in cinema that it almost seems to have come from a different time or a different planet.
The movie comes to center on the battle of wills between the boy who grows into Sean Penn and his father, played by Brad Pitt in a precise, compressed, and immensely complex performance that deserves to be called magnificent. This man is surely a version of Malick’s own father, and there has rarely been as moving or interesting a cinematic portrait of a son’s view of a father. He is martinet and inspiration, the suppressor of joyous natural instinct and the bearer of heavy familial responsibility, an inventor of some genius who is full of regret because he is not a musician of genius.
We learn all this elliptically rather than straightforwardly, as we dip in and out of Penn’s memories and see him grapple with earthly temptations—jealousy, anger, violence, cruelty—while being reminded to follow the “way of grace” by his saintly and ethereal mother. Maddening though it is, the seriousness and deep intelligence with which Malik addresses the intertwining of the divine and the earthly helps The Tree of Life transcend its own pretensions and become something glorious.
As Mel Brooks’s critic says, “It’s symbolic.” But The Tree of Life is the opposite of junk.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.