Terrence Malick‘s Tree of Life is as exquisite a journey of celestial wanderings as it is burdened by terrestrial design, flawed in its pursuit of complexity, finally succumbing to a monastic’s dream of eternity. Where gentle stillness pervades the senses, nurturing our natural curiosity for the unknowable densities of the universe, the love of a child’s burgeoning curiosity cannot sustain both naiveté on the verge of change and omniscient narrator of eminent domain, leaving us to the devices of the filmmaker’s grandiosity. Pricked by the thorns of well intentions, detoured by lofty maneuverings, the characters are stifled, stunted breaths that cannot bleed or come into knowing that which can only be perceived – that the reclusive spirit cannot ascend without first having realized unselfish love – hardly possible in a film devoid of linearity and cogency. Perhaps it is this, after all is said and written about Tree that will endure; so much tenderness and care as if a light shown in a cavernous ravine, revealing a boy that hides from his own demise, what the filmmaker knows but cannot speak in air so he shows, illusive piety, chipped as if alabaster reflecting tears of joy. Where Tree of Life takes us and detours the same will depend entirely on the viewer, our willingness to let go of conventional, forgo film tradition of story and plot, characters in varying shades of change and damaged, the wounded learning how to live and those destined for elsewhere. With a film that makes no effort to persuade us to this far away different place, the danger is as one would expect, of alienation and pretense, undermining Saturday night movies for some kind of wonderful something that is not a movie as we know it or perhaps, even want it to be.
In all practicality, to be first considerate of mainstream sensibilities, I cannot recommend Tree of Life to many, perhaps only a few, because it lingers too long on sentiment, loses track and starts over, has no real sense of momentum or purpose. I would only suggest it to a few, maybe less for the sake of exploration, not for story per say or for characters that change like you do or maybe just how you want them too. Despite those who preface Tree with many instructive preparations, suggestions on how to view or simply what to do with it, such pandering only furthers the divide between movies as entertainment, movies as escape ships from the doomed mother-ships of our lives careening into the atmospheric shores of mendacity and mediocrity, and movies that attempt to capture the fleeting jetsam and flotsam of our mortality only to fail spectacularly. A film is a film by its ability to engage, alone, as it is and not by which we are told it is, by the conveyance of story constructed of photographed images and sounds of a certain length, containing characters and a sense of time, place and purpose. Otherwise it is a cardboard box of dented flaps and tattered purpose, empty except for that which you put in it instead of for that which it offers, an invitation for the treasure of discovery inside.
I was fully prepared for Tree in the same way I followed Malick’s Badlands into the Thin Red Line, prepared for the importance of stillness and mood, for the lengthy moments of introspection and verisimilitude. I came ready for love of minutia like the way Jarmusch is obsessed with four-wall rooms of mundane, Lynch makes doodle bug empires only so that he can jam down his heel into their worship of him. Drawn to Tree, the revelry of distant chances, I waited for the collision of Pitt and Penn together for what it promised – only to see it disappear or never appear at all, hardly there when it was, not even sock puppet shadows, only marionettes, strings the weight of anchors. Perhaps it was my own fault after all, my damnable expectations sneaking into the theater with me, crowding me, elbows sharp against my belly as we fought one another for the best part of popcorn – the kernels – surely the tastiest morsels of all. I will concede to my own misgivings and purposefulness, the ruined chance to escape into Malick’s wounded worlds of broken, beautiful people and get caught up there, lost midst shifting sands of discovery. But I blame Tree most of all as it washed over me in those first minutes and with each moment beyond that my eyes burned and my hands clutched the chair for meaning, for a thread of narrative being. Instead my every desire for more than this, for some semblance of ordered narrative in place of order of the immeasurable, intangible – how I would have wished for even the slightest of coherency and tactful discourse. Instead, rooted there in 1950s Texas, choking on the antithesis of plot, struggling as if pinned under water, nostrils filling with sharp water, eyes that cannot see but cannot think to close, skin electrical, my thoughts bore down on me, smothering me, blotting out worlds for hours of fleeting nothingness leaving me stranded there piqued, prostrated, pastiche.
To enjoy Tree one must first cleanse the palate of familiar film formalities, wash tasty ruminations of former indulgences away, replace them with minty obscurities and such techniques – or like rambling metaphors and superciliousness, burn them in effigy with fiery red and orange pepper distractions, your expectations, and maybe then it will at least have been something before so much nothing. I choked on moments in and could not pass. I did not enjoy the hodgepodge nor did I find it particularly whimsical, lacking looseness all together, a structuralist’s nightmare and everyday moviegoers bane. Tree of Life is a contradiction of clarity and heedlessly scatters characters in some kind of fractured reality and time, no universe we know or have access to, no universe that welcomes the hapless traveler, rather crushes her in diffused shards of impermanence desperate for a container of meaning, lost like light of sunset, dusk burdened by a night sky of blue-black indifference. Tree of Life doesn’t exist so much as it just is, like a dying star destined for over, unable and uninterested in solace, consumed with oblivion. Terrence Malick suggests grandness is a vehicle for molecular time travel but fails to realize so much space is to specificity as forlorn expression is to hope and change, muted in silences, devoured by the empty, suggesting creatio ex nihilo (depth from air).