His abiding Cannes audience may not have been waiting as long as the cosmic eons translated on screen in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But even a year’s delay probably felt like eternity for some in the throng that began queueing up at 7:30 a.m. today on a classically sunny Cote d’Azur morning for the first screening of Malick’s avidly anticipated new movie.
What this pro-Malick, 7:30 a.m. queue participant saw: A (typically) fascinating but confounding jumble of two works in one. Under the circumstances, I’ll call them the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Or maybe the luminously precise and the woo-woo spiritual-lite. The heart of the story rests with the O’Briens, a 1950s Midwestern mother and father and their three sons. Father (Brad Pitt, above, in a great, mature performance, with Laramie Eppler as the gentle middle son), an authoritarian figure true to his era, is particularly hard on his oldest boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken, yet another in this year’s Cannes parade of riveting non-pro child actors). Celestially eternal Mother (Jessica Chastain, lovely yet given little to say) yields to her husband’s disciplinary style, also true to her era.
Jack grows up to be played by Sean Penn. There’ll be no further plot information from me, just admiration and wonder at the way Malick can convey the texture of exquisitely remembered childhood in countless details as precise and passing as the weight of a parent’s hand on a kid’s shoulder, or the quality of afternoon light on a 1950s suburban street as brothers goof around in the front yard. This is Badlands and Days of Heaven Malick, master of feeling and temps perdu made cinematically tangible.
The macrocosmic is more problematic. Well, yes, you say, of course it is. But what I mean is, the filmmaker makes the macrocosmic even more cinematically problematic than it needs to be. Not only does he set the bar precariously high in the movie’s soupy beginning, with a quotation from the Book of Job and an easy-bake, voice-over homily about choosing which way to follow in life, that of nature (i.e., Mr. O’Brien) or that of grace (ideally, Mrs. O). But then, after introductory imagery with all the generic value of a “Hang in there, baby” poster, he takes a deep-dive narrative detour into nothing less than the history of creation. First comes the earth without form and void, then single-celled organisms, etc., on through evolution that features a sampling of dinosaurs. The CGI work is impressive. But the machina behind this deus work is distractingly visible.
For a grand finale, Malick takes on the challenge of depicting the afterlife, including its beach-property real estate, its promise of peace and love, and its excellent playlist of fine classical music, particularly the soaring Agnus Dei from Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, Opus 5.
There’s a certain awesome delight to be had from giving oneself over to all this narrative ambition and visual bravado, this swirl of desire and yearning, bumping up against the limits of translation on the part of so interesting an artist. But like an inspiring sermon or a meditation session that goes off on too many tangents, The Tree of Life leaves this seeker less serene than she had prayed she would be.