When “Days of Heaven” was finally released in 1978 (see last week’s review) after two years of perfectionist fiddling in the editing room, director Terrence Malick was given a blank check by his patron at Paramount, industrialist Charles Bluhdorn, to develop his next project. Malick assembled a small team and began work on “Q,” a project long shrouded in mystery.
Malick — perhaps inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” — went to work on the film’s epic prologue, which would move through the Big Bang and the origins of the planet before settling into a contemporary love story. Malick tinkered with the script, kept Paramount at bay, researched things like the possibility of filming from space, and traveled the world gathering footage from volcano craters and the Great Barrier Reef. Four years later, the film still wasn’t in production, his crew had dispersed, Bluhdorn was dead and Malick walked away from it all.
Perfectionism is a blessing for cinephiles, but a paralyzing curse for those directors who suffer from it. Every decision made is another possibility left unexplored, every flaw magnified beyond proportion, and everything good could always be better. Consider how Malick filmed “Days of Heaven”: Each scene was shot repeatedly, at different times of day, in different weather, and at least once without dialogue, to retain maximum flexibility in the editing room. This isn’t technique, it’s obsession.
This tendency proved to be his undoing with “Q”; it would be 20 years before another film with his name on it would be released, 1999’s “The Thin Red Line.” And yet, like Terry Gilliam with his doomed “Don Quixote” project (supposedly yet again in preproduction), “Q” never quite lost its grip on the director. Some three decades on, Malick reworked the material, signed up Brad Pitt, lured special effects whiz Douglas Trumbull (“2001,” “Blade Runner”) out of retirement, and finally made the damn thing.
The result: “The Tree of Life,” a beautiful, maddeningly eclectic film that moves from the intensely personal to the majestically cosmic, often within the same reel. Imagine the mystical grandeur of “Baraka” crossed with random 1950s childhood outtakes from “Stand By Me” and you’ll be getting close. “The Tree of Life” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes — where it was also booed by some — and has split Malick’s fans: Some consider it his masterpiece, while others find it a bit much. My own opinion is that it’s a bit of both.
Malick works with a very oblique structure, flipping between two eras. There’s the present, with an angsty middle-aged architect named Jack (Sean Penn) ruminating on the loss of his mother and younger brother. And there’s the past, a long nostalgic blur of Jack’s idyllic childhood memories of suburban Waco, Texas, where he was raised by a caring Gaia-like mother (Jessica Chastain) and a strict disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt). Interposed between these two acts is Malick’s symphonic digression into the evolution of life, with galaxies forming, protoplasmic jellyfishlike creatures swimming in the primordial soup and dinosaurs stomping through lush forest.
It’s no coincidence that the sunlight bathing those forests is shot in much the same way as the flaring light we see through the trees on a lazy summer afternoon in 20th-century Texas. The tree of life, a mystical symbol that dates back to the book of Genesis, stands for the interconnection of all things; Malick dares to take a story of growing up in a small town and to place it in the context of eternity and divinity.
Some will surely call this pretentious, a feeling that’s reinforced by the stark contrast between the often playful, down-to-earth feel of the childhood scenes — of shooting BB guns, getting into trouble and running in packs — and the cosmic scenes, with their somber classical score. But Malick is also correct: The mystery of one human life, of our presence on this earth, is infinite.
This gravitation toward the big questions is less surprising if you consider the film’s origins. Malick is notably reluctant to give interviews, and he has said little about his intentions with “The Tree of Life.” But just like Jack in the film, Malick also grew up in Texas, one of three brothers, his father also an oil man, his mother a red-haired Irish beauty. And like Jack, Malick was wounded by tragedy at an early age: One brother was injured horribly in a car accident; another — like the musically inclined boy in the film — went to Spain to study with virtuoso guitarist Andres Segovia, only to wind up breaking his own hands out of frustration and then taking his own life.
That kind of experience changes you, and the big questions of existence step out of the shadows and grab you by the throat. “The Tree of Life,” like all Malick’s films, posits a state of grace -of innocence, of oneness with the world — versus a state of nature, where one is in conflict, a kind of Darwinian struggle, blinded to the sheer beauty of life. Malick has never been so overt in his spiritual questioning and so opaque in his storytelling; personally, I prefer him when he’s wedded to a solid narrative -as in “The New World” — but love it or loathe it, it’s guaranteed you haven’t seen a film like this before. “The Tree of Life” plays like memories committed to celluloid: both those of the filmmaker, and the collective memories of the entire human race.