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August 8, 2011 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

The Tree Of Life

Nick Cave begins one of the greatest love songs ever written by claiming “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” Terrence Malick’s beautiful agnostic prayer, The Tree of Life, opens with similar concerns. With the death of a child, his mother cannot begin to comprehend what kind of God could let this happen. Over two hours later, the film ends, like Cave’s song, with an affirmation of love. But first we see the history of the universe, a cynical man looking back on his childhood with a boy’s spirituality and—of course—CGI dinosaurs.

The poetic mise-en-scene of Malick’s earlier films often conceals a deceptively conventional narrative: a Bonnie and Clyde story, a Second World War genre piece, a retelling of Pocahontas. His camera, however, doesn’t concentrate on this narrative and with the attention span of a child it seems as interested in the intricacies of nature as the destructiveness of humankind. Ignoring narrative altogether, The Tree of Life is perhaps Malick’s most idiosyncratic film. The child’s perspective becomes literal and his loss of grace and innocence is put into context with all that has gone before it.

Always fixated on the human condition, this is nonetheless Malick’s most thematically universal film. He famously excluded any overt nostalgic elements from his feature debut Badlands, fearing that its specificity would distract the audience. He follows his own lead in The Tree of Life to an even greater extent. Sure, we can tell the film is set in small-town suburban America, probably the late 1950s, but we don’t hear any period music or see anything that would pin this down. We know the characters’ names only because the credits disclose them. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn appear but the camera doesn’t linger on their faces any longer than it did on battle scenes in The Thin Red Line. The characters and situations are archetypes, granted universality through simplicity.

Scored throughout by operatic hymns and playing like a montage in every sense of the word, dialogue is scarce. Characters address God much more than each other. Perhaps the fact that God doesn’t answer and the emphasis on the immensity of evolution justify an existentialist reading of this film. Perhaps Malick sees God in the beauty of all that is around the characters and all that has preceded them. Or perhaps, if God is truly unknowable then the sublime can be known through love. *


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  1. Mike says:

    Well written; makes me want to see the movie

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