There is a mystery about Terrence Malick’s new movie, but it has nothing to do with life, death and the wonders wrought by the maker of the universe, which are the film’s modest ostensible subjects. The mystery about The Tree of Life is how a work that is truly terrible in so many respects can remain so weirdly interesting. Interesting only to some, certainly; and maybe not interesting enough even then. There are bloggers counting the number of people walking out from showings all over the place. American critics have been curiously kind to the film, as if they were afraid of missing the point or grandeur of the cinema’s equivalent of Moby-Dick. They needn’t worry. Still, a mystery is a mystery.
Let’s get the terrible stuff out of the way first. Characters in the movie keep wondering where God is and why he isn’t doing more to help them. God’s answers may not reach the questioners but we definitely get them, transmitted through an epigraph from the Book of Job (‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’), a sequence of graphics (lots of lava, oceans, shots of the edges of the earth taken from outer space) that makes you admire the superior creativity of almost any screensaver, and a prehistoric inset revealing to us that this God is a Darwinist. The fittest surviving creature we see is a sort of oversized scaly ostrich, which steps on the head of a fallen lesser animal and trots off into the woods looking very pleased with the experience. The effect is that of 2001 not quite meeting Jurassic Park.
There’s some modern material that’s pretty bad too. The date seems to be the present, there are glassy skyscrapers everywhere, and Sean Penn seems to be a mid-career architect. We can’t be sure of this because he doesn’t do anything, just sits in meetings thinking about his murderous Oedipal days as a boy, and occasionally wandering through mental landscapes represented by deserts and small rooms, suggesting that neither his nor Malick’s imagination runs to anything very exciting by way of inner scenery.
God’s answer to his questioners, or what it would be if they could see the movie, seems to be: don’t bother me, can’t you see I’m still recovering from creating the world? And who are you anyway? Equipped with this generous response we may become – I became – less irritated by the large-scale drivel and more sympathetic to the tiny central characters of the film’s story, stuck with such a God and effectively abandoned by their creator and their director alike.
Well, Malick hasn’t abandoned them, he’s just isolated them from his own metaphysical insights, and this could be seen as a form of care or respect. The bulk of the movie – one critic has calculated the quantity at 90 minutes out of 138 – is set in small-town Texas in the 1950s, when the Sean Penn character was a boy, Jack, played by Hunter McCracken with a worried, stoic stubbornness that is really engaging. All the acting is persuasive, understated, in tune with what we might think of as the quiet strangeness of ordinary life once you stop to look at it. We are watching not so much a piece of American naturalism as the film equivalent of a hyper-realist painting. It seems merely real and highly stylised in equal degrees.
Brad Pitt is the father, terse, solemn, anxious to follow the precepts of the Darwinian proto-ostrich, and to make men – that is, bullies – out of his three sons. It’s to the character’s credit that he’s not very good at this, or at being the ruthless man of commerce he likes to think he is. We learn that he believes he has missed a career as a musician, but this is the one false note within this dry and rather moving non-idyll. It’s not that Brad Pitt can’t do the soulful fellow playing Bach on the church organ: he’s become good enough to do most things. It’s that the soulful fellow seems wheeled in to get a spiritual effect without too much work on the script. Jessica Chastain as the mother drifts prettily around the house as if she were waiting to be called for some as yet unknown saintly activity – at one point she does levitate a little, to make sure we get the mood, or perhaps just to show how Jack feels about her in memory. All three boys are wary and sceptical throughout, but none of them seems deeply unhappy, even in their bad moments. They have small smiles that suggest they know childhood will soon be over, and a good thing too. There is a fine, hands-off scene in which Jack watches his father lying under the car fixing something. The car is propped up at an angle. This is at a moment when Jack really hates his father and has said so to him. All he has to do now – we read his mind without needing any kind of cue – is to kick the prop away and the deed will be done, the father crushed. Jack doesn’t think about it for very long, just turns away. Oedipus should have been so lucky, or so patient.
The big events later in the movie are the father losing his temper and, in a more restrained mode, his job; Jack and his two brothers racing around, teasing each other; Jack stealing into the empty house of a girl he likes, and making off with her slip, which he throws into the river; Jack almost wounding one of his brothers with an air rifle. The street where the family lives has almost no traffic, the road is like an extension of the garden; the neighbour’s property begins at some invisible point on the broad lawn between houses. No fences make no neighbours. This is America in its disconnected, depopulated solitude. There is a grandmother, played by Fiona Shaw, but I didn’t know she was a grandmother till I read the credits.
And the big event early in the movie is the death of Jack’s brother, the middle child, at the age of 19. No one seems likely to get over this, least of all the mother, who travels through her grief as if it were just blank, unmeasurable time, and as if all the religious consolations that echo through the movie were ponderously, cruelly fraudulent, offering wisdom and solace as long as you don’t really need either, and entirely vacuous as soon as the crash comes and you reach for help. After the epigraph from Job, we hear the mother’s voice citing a lucid and at first compelling instruction: ‘The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace … Nature only wants to please itself … It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it … Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.’ This sounds uplifting when you hear it, and when the boy is not yet dead. On anything like a second thought, or under any sort of pressure, we see that a doctrine that so denies and demonises nature is headed for trouble, and can’t succour anyone in real need.
There is a grandeur about the sheer helplessness and loneliness of the family, as if their own ordinariness were baffling to them. But the film only half-believes in this form of grandeur, even if it’s the one thing it’s good at, and it finally decides both to take pity on the family and to show God in a better light. In someone’s sentimental imagination, the grown-up Jack’s or the kindly Malick’s, the whole story turns out well – that is, goes soggy. The family, including the dead boy, meets up on some beach of the other world, a sort of De Chirico setting for the afterlife, and wanders along the sand with the zonked-out look that seems to be obligatory for the dead in high-toned situations. The message presumably is that they are all at peace now, that grace has redeemed them from nature. What the images unmistakably say is that they are more lost than ever, along with the movie. At a stretch, we might say we are seeing how desperately this consolation is needed, how poor the chances are of such a reunion in the world the film has shown us, and how little conventional ideas and images are going to do for these suffering people. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the film is trying wrongheadedly to take away from them what matters most: their dogged dignity, their helplessness and their sorrow.