25 August 2011

The Tree of Life

Written & Directed by: Terrence Malick
Full credits at IMDb

The Tree of Life is not a political film—it transcends such material limitations and reaches for something more numinous: to discover humanity's relationship to the divine; to find the whole of cosmological history in just one man. And then, it stops. The movie begins with The Fall, the descent from grace into the entropy of nature, and loops back to trace the events building up to it. And I mean way back: Malick visits the dawn of time, the creation of the stars and the planets, the first signs of life on earth and the cosmically brief reign of the dinosaurs. This epic drama of celestial and saurian bodies culminates in the birth of a boy into Eisenhower's America, a Cain born unto an Eden called post-war Waco, where he progresses through a childhood that's an ideal of beauty and peace after eons of chaos: it's made of frogs and rabbits, Halloweens and Fourths of July, horseplay and baseball, Mahler and Brahms, and a father who looms like the Old Testament God. (Phew. You get the sense Malick shot 1,440 frames for every 24 he used.) Here is the innocence—the paradise to be lost.

Malick depicts the past in organic shapes: it's all trees, grass and open water, all spirals and tendrils, the texture of the light as central to the film as the faces of his protagonists. In contrast, the present appears as the angular, geometric and boxy impositions of man, cold order placed on sublime freedom, all metal and glass, where water flows in a controlled stream from a faucet rather than splashing freely in a lake. We can trace the origins of this degeneration; serpents arise to defile the childhood idyll: polio, layoffs, death, sexual awakening, masturbation, Oedipal conflict with a stern patriarch. Drawing on his own personal experience, the director finds in his memories a way to make sense of the metaphysical, wrestling with broader philosophical problems. (When a child dies, the film's mother asks God, "what are we to you?" Against images of stars being born in a spatially and temporally infinite universe, Malick suggests the answer is "not much.") But then the film loses its spiritual edge, becoming instead a loose, lyrical portrait of fathers and sons lost in its own bathos, insufficiently ambitious and too narrow in scope. The Tree of Life is not ultimately about God, the fall from grace, or Reaganism—it's just the personal tragedy of one man nostalgic for a youth he can't reclaim. Grade: B+

Watch the trailer:

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