My Week With Malick #3: Tree of Life

From nature to grace…

Why did I know from the very first frames of The Tree of Life that it would be a beautiful experience when the first two features in this retrospective were sorely lacking such a prodigious start? It’s not just from it being the only Malick I’d viewed previously. Something is tighter in the music and the editing rhythms, in Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s astoundingly sympathetic performances as a couple who have lost a child. Where Christian Bale looked blank for no goddamn reason and Ben Affleck/Olga Kurylenko simply floated around, they are fully in the serenity of that opening prayer on nature and grace. I think I’ve come to realize that these three films are from a director trying to portray a transcendent emotion in some way. Depression could work if it wasn’t from such a vague hunk of clay as Rick. The wondrous sense of love that fades had potential in it, but was undone by monotony and, again, weak characters. Here, when the child dies, we go from the aimless wanderings of grief to dealing with it with the funeral in the church in quick succession, and there’s so much specificity in the interactions of the couple. This all takes place in the opening ten minutes, before the silent film portion that is the creation of the universe set to the mourning of a mother and brother that all leads back to the truly astounding childhood sequences, where so much is said without a single word of the narration that was overused and made sludgy in Knight and Wonder. Whenever the cast talks, it is accessibly poetic and natural in its free associative rhythms rather than inaccessible fancy talk about a quest for a pearl that never comes. Viciousness is everywhere in Waco, Texas but there is also great joy in the clouds of DDT or small acts of mercy like one dinosaur sparing another or Mrs. O’Brien giving a man about to be sent to prison a last drink. Everything is just a small scale version of the creation sequence, and that is both disheartening and transcendent. And yet, despite how grandly ambitious and befitting of its title Tree of Life is, it is also miniature. Lubezki has never been better, and it’s possible that the same could be said to this gloriously, deliriously happy lament for a dying natural world. Astounding stuff that redeemed this whole retrospective’s rotten start.

And now to see the films I’ve never seen.


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